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Traditional Knowledge and the Convention on Biological Diversity

What is traditional knowledge?

Traditional knowledge refers to the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities around the world. Developed from experience gained over the centuries and adapted to the local culture and environment, traditional knowledge is transmitted orally from generation to generation. It tends to be collectively owned and takes the form of stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, cultural values, beliefs, rituals, community laws, local language, and agricultural practices, including the development of plant species and animal breeds. Sometimes it is referred to as an oral traditional for it is practiced, sung, danced, painted, carved, chanted and performed down through millennia. Traditional knowledge is mainly of a practical nature, particularly in such fields as agriculture, fisheries, health, horticulture, forestry and environmental management in general.

Its role and value

There is today a growing appreciation of the value of traditional knowledge. This knowledge is valuable not only to those who depend on it in their daily lives, but to modern industry and agriculture as well. Many widely used products, such as plant-based medicines, health products and cosmetics, are derived from traditional knowledge. Other valuable products based on traditional knowledge include agricultural and non-wood forest products as well as handicraft.

Traditional knowledge can make a significant contribution to sustainable development. Most indigenous and local communities are situated in areas where the vast majority of the world's genetic resources are found. Many of them have cultivated and used biological diversity in a sustainable way for thousands of years. Some of their practices have been proven to enhance and promote biodiversity at the local level and aid in maintaining healthy ecosystems. However, the contribution of indigenous and local communities to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity goes far beyond their role as natural resource managers. Their skills and techniques provide valuable information to the global community and a useful model for biodiversity policies. Furthermore, as on-site communities with extensive knowledge of local environments, indigenous and local communities are most directly involved with conservation and sustainable use.

The Convention and indigenous and local communities

The international community has recognized the close and traditional dependence of many indigenous and local communities on biological resources, notably in the preamble to the Convention on Biological Diversity. There is also a broad recognition of the contribution that traditional knowledge can make to both the conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity, two fundamental objectives of the Convention.

The Conference of the Parties has established a working group specifically to address the implementation of Article 8 (j) and related provisions of the Convention. This working group is open to all Parties and, indigenous and local communities representatives play a full and active role in its work. Traditional knowledge is considered a "cross-cutting" issue that affects many aspects of biological diversity, so it will continue to be addressed by the Conference of the Parties and by other working groups as well. In particular, in decision VII/19 ,D the Conference of the Parties requested the Ad Hoc Working group on Access and Benefit-sharing with the collaboration of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Article 8 (j) and Related provisions to elaborate an international regime on access to genetic resources and benefit sharing with the aim of adopting an instrument/instruments to effectively implement the provisions in Article 15 and Article 8 (j) of the Convention and the three objectives of the Convention. This is an ongoing priority of the Convention.

Engaging indigenous and local communities

Given the commitment by Parties to the Convention to respect, preserve, maintain and promote the wider use of traditional knowledge with the approval and involvement of the users of such knowledge, indigenous and local communities have a direct interest in the work of the Convention. Consequently, their representatives have been invited to participate fully in the working group on traditional knowledge, including in the group's decision-making. Indigenous and local community representatives also participate in other meetings of the Convention of relevance to them and recently, in decision VIII/5/D/I, selection criteria of the voluntary fund to facilitate the participation of indigenous and local communities in meetings held under the Convention, was adopted. This fund is now fully operational and information, including selection criteria and application forms can be found on the 8(j) home page.

National measures

As a result of the Convention's adoption and the work being conducted under its auspices, Governments have already undertaken to facilitate the participation of indigenous and local communities in developing policies for the conservation and sustainable use of resources, access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits, and the designation and management of protected areas.

Many Governments are now in the process of implementing Article 8 (j) of the Convention through their national biodiversity action plans, strategies and programmes. A number of Governments have adopted specific laws, policies and administrative arrangements for protecting traditional knowledge, emphasizing that the prior informed consent of knowledge-holders must be attained before their knowledge can be used by others.

A growing respect for traditional knowledge has led modern science to adapt its procedures for assessing the impact of development projects on biological diversity; for monitoring of ecosystems, species, particular genetic resources and species at risk; for controlling alien species; and for promoting the in-situ conservation and sustainable management of biological diversity generally to identify but a few examples. Governments are also seeking to involve indigenous and local communities more actively, and to apply their knowledge and technologies, in the conservation and sustainable use of forests, agricultural biodiversity, inland waters, coastal and marine ecosystems, rangelands and eco-tourism.

The Convention Secretariat

The Secretariat is responsible for servicing meetings held under the Convention, including meetings of the Conference of the Parties, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), and the Working Group on the Implementation of Article 8 (j) and Related Provisions. It is also tasked with preparing documents and draft decisions for these meetings based on information provided by Parties in the form of national reports, case studies, reports of experts, and so on. Indigenous and local communities are particularly invited to contribute to the work of this process.

A programme officer and an assistance programme officer in the Secretariat deals specifically with the implementation of Article 8 (j), prepares documents for the relevant meetings, disseminates information, and monitors progress in the various thematic and sectoral areas dealt with under the Convention.

The Secretariat also cooperates with other UN agencies, such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Food and Agriculture Organization , World Intellectual Property Organization , Trade Organization , UN Forum on Forests , and the UN Conference on Trade and Development . This collaboration ensures that issues concerning the protection and application of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices, and the involvement of indigenous and local communities in biodiversity-related activities, are given the widest possible focus.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) - the supreme decision-making body of the Convention - meets every two years. Its main functions are to monitor progress and to agree on programmes of work to implement the Convention. The participation of observers is encouraged, and representatives of indigenous and local communities attend the COP's meetings.

Future directions

As part of a programme of work addressing the commitments embodied in Article 8 (j) and other provisions of the Convention dealing with traditional knowledge, Governments and Contracting Parties have undertaken:

  • to establish mechanisms to ensure the effective participation of indigenous and local communities in decision-making and policy planning;
  • to respect, preserve and maintain traditional knowledge relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity;
  • to promote its wider application with the approval and involvement of the indigenous and local communities concerned; and
  • to encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such traditional knowledge.

While these elements are equally important, the last one has taken on a special significance for indigenous and local communities. This is because traditional knowledge has often been used in recent years by modern industry to develop new products and techniques without the involvement and consent of the holders of such knowledge, who have also received none of the resulting benefits.

Governments and Contracting Parties have established a working group under the Convention with a mandate to make concrete proposals on how to translate all of these commitments into reality. Within the current Programme of Work, the Ad hoc open ended Working Group on Article 8(j) and related provisions' main tasks include:

  • the development of elements of sui generis systems;
  • developing indicators for the retention of traditional knowledge and methods and measures to address the underlying causes of the loss of such knowledge;
  • the development of an ethical code of conduct to ensure respect for the cultural and intellectual heritage of indigenous and local communities relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity; and
  • contribute to the negotiation of an international regime on access and benefit sharing,research on the impact of climate change into highly vulnerable indigenous and local communities, among others.

The Secretariat has invited Parties, other governments, indigenous and local communities and non-governmental organizations to submit views on the aforementioned matters. The contribution of indigenous and local communities will remain crucial to the overall success of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Other elements to be considered at a later stage include the development of guidelines:

  • to ensure that indigenous and local communities obtain a fair and equitable share of the benefits arising from the use and application of their traditional knowledge;
  • to ensure that private and public institutions interested in using such knowledge obtain the prior informed approval of indigenous and local communities;
  • to regulate how impact assessments are carried out regarding any proposed development on sacred sites or on land and waters occupied or used by indigenous and local communities; and
  • to assist Governments in the development of legislation or other mechanisms to ensure that traditional knowledge, and its wider applications, is respected, preserved, and maintained.

Other international initiatives

In addition to the Convention, a number of international bodies, instruments and initiatives are of particular relevance to traditional knowledge. They include but are not limited to the following: