The struggle to get indigenous knowledge into policy

indigenous knowledge
Copyright: PAHO/WHO/ A. Waak

Speed read

  • Workshops can be run to collect indigenous knowledge and make it citeable
  • This technique was used for the IPCC’s fifth report on climate change
  • But the draft SDGs make no mention of including traditional knowledge

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Compared with national and regional programmes, global level recognition of the importance of indigenous knowledge to scientific assessments has been lagging. But recently there have been signs of a shift in thinking among the organisations that help shape international agreements.

For starters, an indigenous expert has made it onto the UN secretary-general’s board of science advisors. Plus, experimental projects are finding ways of making indigenous knowledge ‘citeable’ to ease its integration into scientific reports. And several important reports — including those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — are recognising indigenous peoples’ contributions. Some of these small steps could pave the way to a better use of indigenous knowledge in the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Joji Cariño, executive director of human rights charity the Forest Peoples Programme, is the indigenous representative on the UN secretary-general’s Scientific Advisory Board established in September 2013. “To have someone known to have been carrying the pursuit of traditional knowledge through the years is an acknowledgement at the highest level of the UN that it is now recognised,” she tells SciDev.Net.

Most board members are from the ‘hard sciences’ and do not understand the evidence base of traditional knowledge, she says. For them, “it is a new development to be thinking of including indigenous knowledge in science, but, for us, indigenous knowledge, through its long time and depth dimension, is well-grounded and based on evidence”, Cariño says.

Still just words?

Before these recent developments, the UN’s 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity was the only international process to demand that scientific assessments acknowledge indigenous knowledge. [1] In reality, however, it did little to advance this practice, Cariño says.

“To have someone known to have been carrying the pursuit of traditional knowledge through the years is an acknowledgement at the highest level of the UN that it is now recognised.”

Joji Cariño, UN secretary-general’s Scientific Advisory Board

Yet in the past three years, various UN policy negotiations have referred to indigenous and local knowledge in their documents. Although far from being as accepted as science, its as-yet-untapped potential for contributing to tackling global problems is becoming better understood, Cariño says.

Last year, the IPCC’s Fifth assessment report mentioned the need to tap into indigenous peoples’ knowledge when adapting to climate change in the summary for policymakers. [2]

“In some ways, that is the highest level of inclusion,” Douglas Nakashima, chief of the section for Small Islands and Indigenous Knowledge at UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), tells SciDev.Net. But he says there is still a long way to go. “It isn’t necessarily a breakthrough in actually achieving that objective, but it is a first step,” he says.

Indigenous knowledge task force

However, it is a big jump from recognising the importance of indigenous knowledge in principle and incorporating it into assessments alongside other knowledge. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been trying to do this. It’s been a “steep learning curve”, says Nakashima.

Last year, IPBES set up a task force to ensure scientific assessments include indigenous and local knowledge. This is unique among intergovernmental organisations.

Engagement of indigenous communities and local knowledge is critical for sustainable development because they contribute to “maintaining the ecosystem services we all depend on”, says IPBES task force member Rosemary Hill, an expert on indigenous knowledge in collaborative environmental governance at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

For its first project, the IPBES task force is examining how indigenous practices related to pollination can inform policy. It is evaluating recent changes in pollination and pollinators — including mammals, insects and birds — and their effect on food production, particularly pollination’s role in maintaining biodiversity and human wellbeing. The goal is to improve policy responses to declines and deficits in pollination, particularly in light of the SDGs.

IPBES is focusing on how local practices can assist pollination and has put together projects to strengthen such techniques. Hill says the task force found lots of interesting examples of traditional knowledge on this topic, particularly in South and Central America.

The task force’s next step was to organise workshops where scientific experts and indigenous peoples met and exchanged knowledge. The results were written down and IPBES is using them to think about how to integrate this knowledge in international negotiations.

It is “a start on bringing indigenous and local knowledge into the process rather than just talking about the way to do it, which has been the block in some other UN initiatives”, says Phil Lyver, co-chair of the task force.

“Engagement of indigenous communities and local knowledge is critical for sustainable development because they contribute to maintaining the ecosystem services we all depend on.”

Rosemary Hill, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Those who hold indigenous knowledge are “drowned in a science environment”, says Lyver. “So when you look for synergies it is very much small steps first.”

But he says the workshops revealed some encouraging common ground between indigenous people and scientists. “On biology and taxonomy, science and indigenous knowledge have a lot to offer each other,” he says.

“But it is when they start to explain why things are happening that they become quite divergent.”

A will, but no way?

Although IPBES is working to involve indigenous knowledge, Lyver says the steps it has taken have revealed some obstacles to taking things further.

“The UN’s processes are built around a science structure which is not appropriate for facilitating the inclusion of indigenous knowledge,” he says. “IPBES was trying to tack indigenous knowledge onto an existing structure and that doesn’t work.”

Institutions, the UN included, are structured in a way that “values, promotes and protects a certain way of viewing the world”, says Lorna Williams, an expert in indigenous knowledge at the University of Victoria, Canada.

“Science has developed a way of looking at the world and being in the world which is not the way indigenous people view the way we are in the world,” says Williams. “To be able to coexist, you have to be able to find the bridges between science and indigenous knowledge — some basic principles you can follow.”

This requires a commitment on both sides towards understanding, she says.

With such a yawning chasm, Lyver believes IPBES should have worked on how to incorporate indigenous knowledge in scientific assessments at its inception. Instead, it established the IPBES as a working outfit first and only afterwards looked at how indigenous knowledge would be incorporated into its operations. The initial IPBES budget ignored indigenous knowledge. It was only later that some member states agreed to fund various specific projects targeting this, Lyver says.

When IPBES did begin budgeting for work to incorporate indigenous knowledge it became clear it was a large, expensive and complex area. Each assessment would need a unit of managers and advisors to support it. With this being the case, the IPBES task force’s involvement was reduced to two assessments: pollination and land degradation, looking at indigenous groups in Africa, Europe and Central Asia.

A focused first step

But this more-focused effort may help develop the procedures required to effectively integrate knowledge.

“We are going to strengthen the indigenous input and learn from that to see what obstacles there are in terms of using indigenous and local knowledge to feed into assessments,” says Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of IPBES.

“We know what some of the issues are. It is often oral, not published. It is also sometimes difficult to document and refer to.”

UNESCO has been using a technique that could deal with this difficulty. It reached out to networks of indigenous and local knowledge holders to seek information, resources and people to contribute to IPBES’s pollination assessment, and then brought them together in a workshop. It’s a similar approach to the IPBES workshops, except that it fosters networks of knowledge holders rather than individuals in the hope that these can continue contributing collectively to international policymaking process in the longer term.

“Science has developed a way of looking at the world and being in the world which is not the way indigenous people view the way we are in the world.”

Lorna Williams, University of Victoria, Canada.

It was a so far unreleased report based on several of these workshops that helped IPBES understand the diverse practices that promoted pollination and strengthen its assessments, Cariño says.

This eliminates one problem that the authors of technical reports and scientific papers face: they have no way of citing indigenous knowledge. Now the workshop report can be cited as the source.

This workshop system of making indigenous and local knowledge more compatible with the requirements of science was first used for the IPCC’s fifth report, with UNESCO’s assistance, according to Nakashima.

By doing this, the IPCC is “trying something new”, says Cariño. It’s significant that indigenous people can become included as authors of the panel’s reports following this initiative, she says.

But Lyver says scientists still control what goes into assessments, potentially allowing them to decide what indigenous knowledge is valid, and what is not.

Indigenous peoples fear that “scientists cherry-pick what they think is relevant, not what the indigenous communities think is relevant”, says Lyver.

Free prior informed consent is crucial to securing cooperation, he says. “Scientists need to ensure the communities are happy with how their knowledge has been represented in the assessments. It’s a big responsibility to do that,” he says.

“The reason why the UN has been so slow about bringing in indigenous knowledge is because, if there is an indigenous communities’ backlash — if the information was handled wrongly or misappropriated or not represented appropriately — it has ramifications. It could sink the whole [knowledge] platform.”

Nakashima agrees there is this danger. But “by bringing the two knowledge [systems] together around specific questions — a problem-oriented approach — it could perhaps provide useful answers which don’t require indigenous knowledge to be absorbed within science or science absorbed within indigenous knowledge”, he says.

Lessons for the SDGs

The IPBES and IPCC assessments, if truly successful in finding ways to incorporate both, could assist elsewhere, for example, with the SDGs.

It could help in both defining and achieving the goals, says Nakashima.

In many areas, including climate change, science is not operating at a local scale, he says. For the SDGs to make a difference on the ground, “they have to make that jump from the global down to local applications. A single global formula is not going to work everywhere.” By cataloguing and including indigenous knowledge, the international process will be better informed about what each community can implement.

Cariño says: “Even IPBES has not yet fully taken on board that the most important work on biodiversity and ecosystem services is subnational and local,” although she acknowledges that, as an intergovernmental body, IPBES is not mandated to negotiate at these levels.

“Unfortunately, the SDGs are very weak on indigenous peoples at this time,” Cariño says. Indigenous knowledge was mentioned in an early draft produced by the Open Working Group on SDGs, but this was then removed.

Instead, indigenous peoples are only mentioned in the latest draft as part of a bigger category of vulnerable groups. Cariño says this is akin to lumping indigenous people in a group labelled ‘victims’. Instead, governments should recognise, for example, that many of the world’s remaining biodiversity-rich areas are on indigenous and locally owned land, and they are conserved better than nationally protected areas, she says.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) does back the mainstreaming of indigenous knowledge within the SDG targets and indicators. And indigenous groups have said they will work to influence the submissions of UNEP and others to highlight key areas where they can contribute, including monitoring progress towards the new SDG targets on the ground.

“However, if we do not make good headway in the political declaration [on the SDGs] itself or in the negotiations of these goals, there is very little chance that the measurements will include our concerns,” Cariño admits. “We are encountering major problems.”