Biology and Traditional Knowledge background

The World Conference on Science (WCS) 1999 organized by UNESCO and ICSU produced a Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The relationship between traditional knowledge and science is addressed in that Declaration: “that traditional and local knowledge systems as dynamic expressions of perceiving and understanding the world, can make and historically have made, a valuable contribution to science and technology, and that there is a need to preserve, protect, research and promote this cultural heritage and empirical knowledge (paragraph 26 of Declaration).”

This interrelationship between science and traditional knowledge is expanded in Framework for Action produced by the conference: "Governments should support cooperation between holders of traditional knowledge and scientists to explore the relationships between different knowledge systems and to foster interlinkages of mutual benefit (section 3.4 Modern science and other systems of knowledge).”
The Declaration and the Framework for Action were unanimously adopted by the 26th General Assembly of ICSU, Cairo 1999. To clarify the proposed relationship between Science and Traditional Knowledge, ICSU formed a committee to analyze the relationship and to give advice to ICSU on further action.


To that end, the committee produced two publications, 2002:

Science and Traditional Knowledge, ICSU, Paris. (report of the ICSU study group)

Science, traditional knowledge and sustainable development.  ICSU Series on Sustainable Development, No. 4, Paris.

To follow through on the ICSU initiative, in 2007 IUBS included Traditional Knowledge within its annual meeting in Washington DC, within the symposium “Meeting the Challenges of Sustainable Development in an Era of Global Change.”  Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future was a crosscutting theme within considerations of conservation and biodiversity, agriculture, human health, and climate change.  These presentations all stressed the importance of integrating Biology and Traditional Knowledge in developing innovative techniques and insights and in providing scientific ownership and empowerment to local peoples. All of these fields have benefited tremendously from the insights of empirical knowledge held by traditional peoples.

At the 2007 IUBS-GA this committee on “Biology and Traditional Knowledge” was initiated.

Achievements in the first triennium

In our first year (2008), the committee hosted a symposium on Biology and Traditional Knowledge at the Missouri Botanical Garden in the USA with funding from 4 donors besides IUBS and with over 125 people in attendance.  The unique contribution of this symposium was the fact that the majority of presenters were third world scientists with direct research interests in Traditional Knowledge; the workshops were lead by first and third world leaders with strict instructions to get all participants to contribute.  So the voices we heard were diverse and the outcome unique.  Our greatest breakthrough was the realization that we are not trying to "integrate" science and traditional knowledge but rather to have equitable and constructive dialogues among diverse knowledge systems.  Other points of interests were surprisingly heated discussions on definitions and on processes of developing knowledge.  The publication of this symposium is in press at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

In our second year (2009), we hosted a symposium on "Traditional Knowledge and Environmental Change" in conjunction with the IUBS-GA in Cape Town South Africa.  Funding was received from IUBS, ICSU, UNESCO, and from various GOs and NGOs for the participation of their members.  Financially, the symposium was such a success that we are carrying money forward to fund our 3rd symposium in 2010 on “Biology and Traditional Knowledge of Alpine Environments” in conjunction with the international meeting on “Global Change and the World's Mountain”s in Perth, Scotland.