Expert voices Vol 23, No. 04 - April 2019

Traditional knowledge – an answer to the most pressing global problems?

Traditional knowledge is the foundation of indigenous peoples’ identities, cultural heritage, civilizations, livelihoods and coping strategies over several centuries. Its promotion, protection and preservation is fundamental for the sustainability of the livelihoods of indigenous peoples, their resilience to human-made and natural disasters and the development of their communities. It is also at the core of the rights of indigenous peoples. 

The crucial role of indigenous knowledge for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and for addressing the most pressing global problems is gaining international traction. Ahead of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues later this month, we spoke with Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

What are some of the threats for traditional knowledge? What can be done to protect it?

“Centuries of history of discrimination, exploitation, dispossession and colonization have led to the loss of traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is under threat and is being misused and misappropriated.

While scientific studies have investigated the tremendous potential of indigenous knowledge, few indigenous communities have gained from this. Innovations in science, technology, medicine, and pharmaceutics are often based on ages-old indigenous traditional knowledge and genetic resources. Yet the proceeds from these breakthroughs rarely find their way to the communities that originally made them. It is essential to promote the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and safeguard their traditional knowledge, as enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

How can the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples benefit everyone? How can it help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

“Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge has been developed over generations through daily life practices and a close understanding of local environments. It can offer valuable responses to climate change, food insecurity, reducing inequalities and other challenges that we are trying to resolve through the Sustainable Development Goals. Traditional knowledge offers tremendous opportunities in such areas as land management, conservation, and scientific, technological and medical research.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes six specific references to indigenous peoples. These include a commitment to double the agricultural output of indigenous small‑scale farmers and a commitment to ensure equal access to education for indigenous children. Countries have also committed to empower and engage indigenous peoples in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

How is traditional knowledge generated and transmitted through generations?

“A product of learning through experience and oral traditions passed over centuries, indigenous traditional knowledge is generated, transmitted, and strengthened through rituals, metaphors, proverbs, songs, oral history, human interactions, ceremonies, languages, experiences and practices.

Protecting indigenous languages is fundamental to preserving traditional knowledge. It is through indigenous languages that this knowledge is generated and transmitted. Yet today, close to 2,700 languages are estimated to be in danger of disappearing forever. If we lose them, we also risk losing invaluable knowledge that could have provided answers to some of the world’s greatest problems.

Paradoxically, modern technology can help us preserve and revitalize indigenous knowledge and languages and pass them on to future generations. Partnerships between indigenous peoples and Governments, the UN system, businesses and, increasingly, the communications sector, can help to harness modern technologies to preserve the priceless ancient knowledge.”

What can we expect of the upcoming UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?

“The theme of the 2019 session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is: ‘Traditional knowledge: generation, transmission and protection.’ Countries and indigenous peoples will come together to identify and share good practices that advance indigenous peoples’ rights. It will also be an opportunity to recommend actions that promote and protect indigenous peoples’ rights and preserve their traditional knowledge.

Partners from all over the world will be present and I would like to invite UN agencies and Member States to engage actively with indigenous peoples to make the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a reality. The UN DESA-led 2015 UN system wide action plan on the rights of indigenous peoples is a road map for the UN to support its Member States in this regard.”

For more information: 18th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)


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