Promoting Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ (IPLC) ownership over traditional knowledge is essential to upholding rights and building resilience in the face of increasingly complex and intense environmental problems. But exploitative appropriation of traditional knowledge remains pervasive, in part due to the lack of comprehensive, multi-level, participatory governance frameworks. But pathways do exist that can help us secure and uphold these rights. 

Promoting traditional knowledge promotes sustainability

IPLCs have cultivated dynamic knowledge systems over generations of interacting with local ecosystems. Traditional knowledge – a blanket term for Indigenous and local knowledge systems, practices, and innovations – reflects and transmits vital practical information for survival and sustainable resource use in landscapes. Landscape management approaches that IPLC knowledge systems inform – such as seed-saving protocols, controlled burning, and using non-linear conceptions of time to guide ecosystem monitoring – promote holistic understandings of ecosystem health that slow degradation and restore ecosystem functions.

Exploitative appropriation of traditional knowledge threatens rights

Though valuing traditional knowledge builds resilience in the face of problems like climate change and biodiversity loss, many Indigenous and local people fear the violation of their rights through appropriation of their knowledge.

Researchers, businesses, scientists, and governments too often document, disseminate, or profit from traditional knowledge without upholding knowledge holders’ rights. This exploits cultures from which such knowledge originates and compromises IPLC ownership over cultural and natural resources.

Traditional knowledge appropriation comprises both non-consensual uses of specific technologies and benefitting from exploitative use of the lands, territories, and resources with which knowledge is interlinked. Biopiracy, for example, occurs when a non-local person or organization profits from local understandings of genetic resources – commercially valuable organisms and their related physical systems – without compensating knowledge holders or gaining their free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Local understandings of medicinal and crop plant properties have been bases for patents and trademarks that have restricted or prohibited IPLC use and benefit access related to this knowledge. In the 1990s, for instance, two U.S. researchers were granted a patent for powdered turmeric (Curcuma longa) to heal wounds, despite the plant’s use for this purpose in India for millennia. Traditional knowledge systems by definition rely on transgenerational interaction with local ecosystems. Practices like land grabbing – when non-locals purchase or rent local land and resources at a large scale – also exploit traditional knowledge, as grabbers profit from displacing locals and separating IPLCs from land that both supports and has been sustained by traditional knowledge systems.

International policy frameworks for safeguarding traditional knowledge exist. Why is appropriation still a problem? 

Frameworks like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – and its additional Nagoya Protocol – and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognize ownership rights of IPLCs over their knowledge systems, and the cultures, lands, territories, resources, education systems, and languages with which knowledge is co-dependent. Signatory governments are to translate frameworks and create mechanisms for access to benefit sharing and participatory governance. When possible, governments are to accommodate customary frameworks, which tend to treat traditional knowledge as a sacred, unwritten subject of community stewardship rather than exclusive individual ownership.

Despite the existence of these frameworks, several barriers hinder effective policy translation, implementation, and enforcement at local levels. Traditional knowledge systems are complex and dependent on local contexts – attributes that are not conducive to blanket regulations. IPLCs also may not agree internally about what knowledge can be shared with whom and under what circumstances, exacerbating legal ambiguity.

Given the challenges of conventional safeguard attempts, what options are there to better protect traditional knowledge? 

Pathway one: Re-think intellectual property laws to better accommodate customary frameworks

Historically, intellectual property laws have struggled to deal with some of the defining characteristics of traditional knowledge, such as intergenerational time scales and collective ownership schemes. Some organizations and countries, though, have started to work within intellectual property frameworks so communities can classify and protect knowledge. Laws like Kenya’s Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expressions Act, for example, translate principles from international frameworks into concrete mechanisms for communities to co-define resources to be protected as property.

Pathway two: Give legal rights to nature

Working within existing legal paradigms risks failing to address the roots of the interrelated problems of environmental degradation and threats to IPLC livelihoods and self-determination. Places including Ecuador and Pittsburgh have legally enshrined inherent rights of nature, or the rights of species, natural processes, and certain landscape features to exist and function independently of their value to humans. Although there are challenges to implementing an inherently bio-centric legal framework that relies on humans to interpret and enforce laws, guaranteeing the rights of local ecosystems to exist not only mainstreams sustainable relationships with the environment that mirror those of IPLCs’, but encourages integrity of the physical systems to which traditional knowledge systems are tied.

Pathway three: Promote platforms for dialogue within, between, and across communities 

Legal reforms require participatory policy creation and decision-making mechanisms, not only because IPLCs specifically hold procedural rights, but because what knowledge needs to be protected and who is responsible for protecting it must be defined.

IPLCs are diverse, dynamic, and pluralistic groups: answers to these questions differ between and within communities. While many fear comprising cultural conservation with increased knowledge sharing, groups like Wisdom Weavers of the World  consist of knowledge holders who believe the dissemination of their knowledge to be imperative given the scale and severity of social and environmental problems.

How could autonomy concerns be reconciled with desires to share knowledge for global benefit? Platforms for inter- and intra-community knowledge sharing could serve as a space for IPLCs to co-create understanding of parameters for knowledge sharing, as well as a means of preserving knowledge through building relationships for sustained exchange. Such channels could also support participatory measures for environmental decision-making, such as mapping. One such forum is the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. LCIPP engages and connects different Indigenous and local communities on multiple levels for sharing knowledge, building capacities of both indigenous and non-indigenous parties, and developing policies, actions and safeguards to promote traditional knowledge and Indigenous languages in international political arenas.

Pursuing these pathways to safeguarding traditional knowledge cannot exist in a vacuum. 

Securing full bundles of IPLC rights and a widespread commitment to shifting values must accompany new legal and community exchange mechanisms to better safeguard traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is co-dependent on secure land tenure, safety for front-line defenders, and ownership over decision-making. Value shifts and cultivation of concrete skills essential for transformative dialogue will be necessary to confront existing power differences that marginalize IPLCs.

Traditional knowledge is an invaluable resource in global efforts to restore the Earth’s land- and seascapes. Institutional and societal changes to strengthen safeguards for this knowledge are prerequisites for sustaining IPLC capacity for environmental stewardship in our shared future.

The article was written by Sophia Callahan.