Local and Indigenous Knowledge and Small Islands

In many small-island countries there are local communities who have long histories of interaction with the natural environment. Associated with many of these communities is a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations. These sophisticated sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of a cultural complex that encompasses language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldview. This local and indigenous knowledge is a key resource for empowering communities to combat marginalization, poverty and impoverishment. And for the emerging knowledge societies, the judicious management of knowledge generated within local communities and knowledge entering from outside is one of the major challenges posed by globalization, and an essential step towards translating commitments to respect cultural diversity into meaningful action on the ground.

Within such a context, what may be known as traditional or local or indigenous knowledge in island situations is being addressed in a range of UNESCO activities in the fields of education, science, culture and communication. These activities include research on traditional resource use strategies and practices in land and water (including marine) ecosystems, initiatives to nurture new kinds of partnerships between indigenous peoples and multi-use protected areas, cultural dimensions of traditional knowledge, relationships between cultural diversity and biological diversity, ethnobotany and the equitable and sustainable use of plant resources, and the role of traditional knowledge in the contemporary world.

Some of this work, for example on traditional management in coastal marine areas, dates back two decades and more. More recently, discussions on different knowledge systems at the UNESCO–ICSU (International Council for Science) World Conference on Science (Budapest, June 1999) contributed to the launching in 2002 of an intersectoral project on Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems in a Global Society (LINKS). The LINKS project focuses on the interface between local and indigenous knowledge and the Millennium Development Goals of poverty eradication and environmental sustainability, stressing the importance of long-tested traditional knowledge systems that can enable communities to survive and sustain themselves in a changing world while maintaining environmental integrity.

Among the early starting LINKS activities relating to small islands are those on indigenous peoples and protected areas in the Surin islands of Thailand, on village-based marine resource management in Vanuatu and on an environmental encyclopedia of the Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands.

A CD-ROM on traditional ocean voyaging and navigation in the Pacific serves as an educational tool illustrating the vitality of indigenous knowledge, know-how and identity, as well as giving local communities access to a selection of archival materials lodged in distant locations. In this way, 'Canoe Is the People' also contributes to a process of restitution of information. While largely in English, the CD-ROM also includes videos in vernacular languages, emphasizing that language is also a foundation of indigenous knowledge. 'Canoe Is the People' was officially launched in October 2005, on the occasion of the thirty-third session of the General Conference of UNESCO.

In Vanuatu, a pilot scheme is underway for incorporating traditional knowledge in primary and secondary school curricula.

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