Manuela Carneiro da Cunha
Manuela Carneiro da Cunha

The Collège de France and AFD have joined forces to support leading experts in their research on fighting poverty and to help disseminate their findings as broadly as possible. We invite you to rediscover the inaugural lecture of Professor Manuela Carneiro da Cunha who holds the Chair of “Knowledge Against Poverty”.

We have two anniversaries to celebrate this year: first, the fiftieth anniversary of “La Pensée Sauvage”, a publication that established the dignity of indigenous knowledge and therefore of the unity of the human spirit; the second is the twentieth anniversary of the first international instrument promoting the value of that knowledge: the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted at the Rio Summit.

What lessons can we draw today? Awareness of the potential contributions of indigenous knowledge has grown considerably. Indigenous knowledge is in demand for needs that range from strategies for predicting and mitigating the effects of climate change to conservation by traditional farmers of the diversity of cultivated plants. It is significant that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is seeking to incorporate traditional knowledge in its 2014 report, and that the 2001 FAO Treaty on Plant Genetic resources calls for in situ conservation of cultivated plants.

But these laudable intentions have come up against many different obstacles at every level. This is especially true in the area of genetic resources. At international level, a great many legal issues have yet to be resolved: for example, should the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity prevail, or not, over those of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) based on the TRIPs agreement? Another example is the debate now raging over the requirement to reveal the origin of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge in any intellectual property claim. Benefit-sharing, conditions of access and prior informed consent are all yet to become established principles, and are still being debated by the different organisations concerned.

Also to be considered are the habits acquired over time by scientists and indigenous populations: the latter have sometimes been elevated by states into instruments for the repression of genetic piracy, with promises of potential rewards.  Given their memories of past exploitation in other areas, they are now suspicious of all researchers. Scientists, for their part, are indignant at the lack of distinction between their own disinterested research and activities aimed at securing patent rights. At present, given the appropriation policies of universities, the distinction between commercial and purely scientific research is often far from clear. Researchers also tend to consider that “others” can contribute information but not true knowledge, and that only their own scientific methods can validate such knowledge and establish its real value. They are rarely inclined to share their laurels, or their oversight of credits for shared research.

There has been no real change in the policies of scientific institutions.  For example, despite its recognition by the FAO, as we have seen, the importance of on-farm conservation is disregarded almost entirely by agriculture institutions in most countries.  This is why I have chosen the topic of in situ conservation as an example for the second day of the symposium of 14-15 May.

A fundamental question regarding the contributions of indigenous knowledge, I believe, is that of intellectual rights in that knowledge, a subject which is mainly addressed by the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Lawyers, through a concern for equity, are looking for instruments to redress the blatant inequalities that prevail in the matter of intellectual property rights. This is a necessary condition, which is demanded – and rightfully so – by indigenous peoples’ organisations and local communities, but is it sufficient?

It is for this reason that research on the nature, programmes and regimes of traditional forms of knowledge has become crucial – and I use the plural here deliberately, because we are looking not at just one way of accessing knowledge and at just one regime, but at a multitude of forms that are yet to be understood.  Also essential is to discern the effects on traditional communities themselves of new policies that take their contributions into account. Ignoring these aspects would jeopardise the very continuity of indigenous knowledge systems.

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