Pacific workshop recommends constructive co-existence between modern and indigenous science

21 September 2001 Victoria University Marae in Wellington (New Zealand) played host to a sub-regional expert workshop this month on indigenous science and traditional knowledge.

Organized from 3 to 7 September by the National Commission of New Zealand for UNESCO and hosted by the local Maori community, the five-day hui (the Maori word for ‘meeting’) attracted some 50 participants from the Pacific basin.

The workshop explored ways of giving effect in the Pacific sub-region to the recommendations of the World Conference on Science on indigenous science and traditional knowledge.

Recommendations examined by participants concerned the contribution of traditional knowledge and approaches to scientific understanding; the development of effective tools for protecting traditional knowledge and its holders from exploitation; and the promotion of traditional knowledge as a valid and constructive form of dealing with environmental management issues.

It was no longer productive to speak of modern and indigenous science as being opposable systems, participants cautioned. Nor was it a question of choosing between one or the other, but rather of co-existence in an intellectual context where different knowledge systems were reflected and valued.

So-called ‘traditional’ knowledge was not necessarily knowledge from the past, participants recalled, but rather knowledge of the present and knowledge of the future. Traditional knowledge needed to have an enduring practical significance for the future.

Access to a variety of knowledge systems required proficiency in the language expressing this knowledge. By the same token, the survival of knowledge systems in their living reality required the survival of the indigenous language in which the system was expressed.

The workshop noted with optimism that the transmission process was leading to some significant developments in strategies for co-management of knowledge, drawing on the skills of outsiders to assist with the retention of living knowledge systems and languages.

Case studies illustrating synergies between indigenous and modern science were discussed in areas such as health, environmental management and education. Participants asked themselves where and how indigenous and modern science were working together, what role indigenous science played in commercial development and bioprospecting, and where indigenous science was being applied in environmental management and conservation.

Protection of indegenous science was another theme. What tools and strategies were needed to ensure informed consent and benefit-sharing for any commercial development, such as bioprospecting, of indigenous science at the international, regional and national levels? What models existed and/or were required to ensure the protection of biodiversity as well as traditional resource rights of indigenous peoples?

Discussions on tools for the promotion and transmission of traditional knowledge, including educational strategies, invited another question, namely, ‘How could awareness be raised and barriers overcome to the recognition and implementation of traditional knowledge in educational curricula and in the community?’

The Steering Committee is in the process of ratifying the workshop’s recommendations. For the participants, the challenge will be now to translate these same recommendations into effective action.

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