Our Perspectives

Indigenous knowledge has life


indigenous woman talking about plantsAustralian indigenous forest ranger Alison Hunt teaches people about Bush Tucker Yams. Photo: WIN/Anson Smart

How traditional knowledge is collected and shared is increasingly becoming an issue of both concern and opportunity for indigenous peoples and local communities around the world. Digital technology’s potential to record information can lead to great benefits, but also raise questions around consent and digital sovereignty. Who owns the data recorded, where is the data being stored, who has the right to the data, and can it be destroyed?

There is potential for good use of the new available technology.

The Wapichana of the southern Rupununi savannas of Guyana face threats such as illegal logging, mining, and cattle rustling, and hope to use drones to map and monitor land aerially to cut the risks faced by those exploring remote areas of land. The Dayaks in Setulang, Indonesia are doing the same in the hope of protecting their lands from illegal uses such as logging and clear cutting. In Kenya, some Maasai groups also seek to use drones to check illegal poaching activities in their area. 

There is some concern that indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ sacred sites and deep millennial cultural knowledge could also be disclosed and documented without their involvement and consent. A mining company in Australia for example is spending 3 million AUS dollars (US$2.5 million) to digitize Aboriginal culture. If that knowledge is not digitized, could it be lost? And why is a mining company taking on this responsibility? How and why is it going to use the data?

As Edward Dee a Navajo traditional knowledge scholar from Arizona State University (ASU) has stated that it is not the validity that is being questioned (the intention to collect is valid), but the sensitivity of the issues, such as rights, disclosure and ownership, that needs to be addressed before opening up a wealth of traditional knowledge to those outside the community. How much knowledge should be shared and recorded? The indigenous knowledge holder should have a stake at the table.

There are examples of indigenous people in the media looking at how indigenous peoples can design technology and products that prioritize the knowledge holders and revitalize how knowledge is transmitted, i.e. through storytelling and ritual. How can modern science bridge traditional practices?

World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are addressing some of these issues by ensuring knowledge can be documented only through free prior and informed consent and that protection needs to be put in place particularly when companies want to use the information/knowledge. WIPO has a toolkit to store traditional knowledge that communities can choose to use, and the CBD is working on guidelines to prevent the misappropriation of traditional knowledge.  What national legal frameworks safeguard indigenous knowledge?

The World Indigenous Peoples Day on August 9th provides an opportunity to reflect on the richness of knowledge that has often been overlooked, or taken without consent. We need to ensure that as governments come together to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their implementation the value of indigenous knowledge and the peoples that own that knowledge are respected, included in decision-making, and benefit from the advances in technology on their own terms.

UNDP has been providing a platform to discuss these and related issues through WIN, the World Network of Indigenous and Local Community Land and Sea Managers. Knowledge has life, and it is important that we protect that life.

Knowledge management Inclusive growth Alejandra Pero

UNDP Around the world