ISSJ - N° 173 - Indigenous Knowledge

September 2002

In the mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the United States Agency for International Development launched a novel partnership. The International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) sought to bring together university researchers, pharmaceutical companies, non-government organizations, and representatives of indigenous peoples into a consortium to identify genetic and biochemical materials that could prove commercially valuable. The venture was also intended to create innovative mechanisms to share with indigenous peoples the anticipated benefits from accurate identification of commercially profitable compounds. Despite the prestigious names and institutions, results from the initiative remain uncertain at best, and little benefit has reached indigenous peoples.

A key reason is that insufficient attention has been given to the basic question of how to think about indigenous knowledge and its relationship to power. The contributions to this issue consider that question, arguing for greater attention to the contexts in which indigenous peoples live, indigenous knowledges are generated, and interactions between the putative indigenous/local and the alleged scientific/modern occur. Furthermore, they stress the need for closer attention and deeper appreciation of the political relations for which easy conceptual categories often, inappropriately, come to stand. Such movements in perspective potentially lay the foundations for greater uncertainty in social outcomes and shifts in political relationships: it is precisely in favor of such indeterminacy and changes in asymmetric relations that the contributions are written.

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