NGOs, indigenous peoples and local knowledge: politics of power in the biodiversity domain

Untangling politics of power in biodiversity management
From the World Conference on Science newsletter

7 June 2002 - When it comes to managing biodiversity, relations between scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and indigenous peoples can be complex, even conflictual affairs. This emerges from a seminar examining ‘NGOs, indigenous peoples and local knowledge: politics of power in the biodiversity domain’.

The seminar was organized at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 27 and 28 May by the Apsonat team within the Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS), in collaboration with the transdisciplinary LINKS programme launched by UNESCO as World Conference on Science follow-up.

The problem of prior informed consent is illustrated by the mésaventure of ethnobotanists Brent and Elois Ann Berlin of the University of Georgia. They found themselves in the middle of a conflict which forced them to cancel their bioprospecting programme in the Highland Chiapas in Mexico. They were there to identify a number of medicinal plants used by the indignenous Mayas communties (8,000 in total) as part of a project to commercialize these plants with a pharmaceutical company. Despite the fact that the ethnobotanists were there to help develop local income, two NGOs, one local and the other international, accused the couple of biopiratery.

In discussion on the Maya mishap, Gonzalo Oviedo acknowledged the ‘fundamentalism’ of some NGOs, whose extremism harmed rather than helped indigenous populations. To make matters worse, he added, scientists lacked the courage to denounce true acts of biopiratery.

If local development projects were able to get off the ground, anthropologist Edvard Hviding noted, this was because mutual incomprehension as to the agenda of the other party was not necessarily an obstacle. To illustrate his point, he cited the example of the Solomon Islands, where forestry groups, conservation NGOs and local peoples had managed to collaborate on a project which meant different things to different people.

Speakers highlighted some effects of globalization on local biodiversity management. Local knowledge has gained formal international recognition, for example, thanks in part to Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Yet these same texts have accorded NGOs a mediation role in an area in which they are simply intermediaries.

The whaling issue has been globalized through the creation of the Whaling Commission. Since 1946, it has been trying to ensure a fragile equilibrium between local and international NGOs wishing to protect the whales, indigenous peoples who wish to hunt for subsistence and countries who advocate or oppose whaling protection.

Peter Bridgewater, Director of UNESCO’s Division of Ecological Sciences, related one outcome of this year’s session. Furious at being denied the right to hunt commercially some 50 small whales this year, Japan has retaliated by preventing the hunting quota from being renewed for the indigenous Inuit Inupiat in Alaska, who hunt whales for subsistence. Japan argues that whale hunting is as much a tradition for its coastal areas as for the indigenous Inuit. 

Extracts from original text by Marie Roué. For further information, contact: d.nakashima(at) or roué(at)

See also, the International Social Science Journal 178: NGOs in the Governance of Biodiversity where most of the papers presented at this conference have been printed.


Programme and Abstracts


Monday 27 Mai 2002


Marie ROUE, Apsonat, CNRS/MNHN

Projects of Desire : Indigenous Landowners, Western NGOs and Asian capitalists in Solomon Islands
Edvard HVIDING, Directeur, Département d’anthropologie de l’Université de Bergen

Les ONG au Vietnam : la sauvegarde du "naturel" peut-elle s’effectuer sans relation aucune avec les connaissances socio-culturelles ?
DINH Trong Hieu, Apsonat, CNRS/MNHN

Environnementalistes américains et Indiens Cris, une alliance contre nature et fertile
Marie ROUE, Apsonat, CNRS/MNHN

Construction d’une nouvelle image "écologique" de l’Indien : la spécificité de la trajectoire mexicaine
David DUMOULIN, doctorant IEP Paris, ATER IHEAL-Université Paris III

Enjeux autour de la gestion des ressources : le rôle des ONG face à la nouvelle loi d’autonomie locale en Indonésie
Dya Maria Wirawati SUHARNO, BPPT, Indonésie, et Claudine FRIEDBERG, MNHN


Tuesday 28 Mai 2002 

Whaling or Wailing? - the International Whaling Commission from several viewpoints
Peter BRIDGEWATER, Directeur, MAB/UNESCO (Ancien Président de l’International Whaling Commission)

NGOs and Prior Informed Consent in Bioprospecting Research
Brent BERLIN and Elois Ann BERLIN, Département d’anthropologie, Université de Georgia

Les obstacles à la requalification des savoirs traditionnels face aux enjeux de la conservation des ressources phytogénétiques : le cas du Manioc en Amazonie
Laure EMPERAIRE, IRD/ISA, et Florence PINTON, LADYSS/Université Paris10-Nanterre

Can NGOs be a real support for the indigenous Mapuche peoples or are they the new colonialists in rural Chile?
Thora HERRMANN, doctorante, Université d’Oxford

WWF and Indigenous peoples : from ethnobotany to biodiversity conservation
Gonzalo OVIEDO et Douglas NAKASHIMA, UNESCO-Links

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