Knowledge for Development

Remodeling traditional & indigenous knowledge

Author: Cindano C. Gakuru

Date: 05/06/2006


Figure 1: The cunani plant

Knowledge, in all its forms, is a means to the attainment of economic self-determination and self-reliance. Every aspect of human activity in terms of the use of knowledge is becoming a vital component of socio-economic and political interaction. This has prompted many a commentator to proclaim that we have entered the 'Information Age'. Information is power, so the cliché goes. However, not all knowledge is perceived to be power generating; not all knowledge is perceived to be providing a competitive edge. Such is the case with traditional knowledge (TK). For a considerable period, TK has been considered little more than a nostalgic remembrance of our varying pasts, being preserved only as superstitious folklore best relegated to museums. Thankfully this is changing as TK has recently assumed a major significance globally especially with regard to knowledge of genetic resources and their contribution to pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.


I. Definitions
The terms 'traditional' and 'indigenous' are often generically used with seldom few attempts to define and thus distinguish each other, subsequently rendering their meanings mystifying and interchangeable. This has been reflected in the various attempts to etch out a standard definition in the international arena.

1. Traditional knowledge.
Traditional knowledge has loosely been defined as a subset of the broader concept of 'heritage' and refers to various 'innovations, technologies and practices.' It includes a broad range of subject matters, for example, traditional agriculture, knowledge of natural resources, biodiversity and medicinal knowledge and folklore. Because traditional knowledge encompasses several forms of cultural expressions, it also applies to religious and sacred arts, rites, customs and other expressions of faith and ancient beliefs. This somewhat elastic nature of the components of traditional knowledge, able to take many different forms, renders such knowledge difficult to define in precise scientific and consequently legal terms, especially when it comes to drawing a line to separate this form of knowledge from modern knowledge and information.

2. Modernism
It is now a globally recognized yardstick that the pace of development of any nation is measured against the level and type of her national scientific and technological capacities; ranging from agriculture and food production, manufacturing industries to development in medicine, transport, construction and communication. Many less developed countries in their bids to industrialize thus attempt to do so by building a strong science base. Ambitious strategies and policies regarding the instruction of science and science-oriented courses in educational institutions from primary or elementary schools to vocational technical institutions have been designed. Curricula in mathematics, chemistry, life sciences, physics and their advanced applications have been designed, albeit with a Western scientific mindset. Scientific rationalism, as promulgated through the discourses of Rene Descartes, considered to be the father of modern rationalism, is primarily concerned with the demonstration of arithmetic and geometry; with the object of building on the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things to mathematically precise knowledge of the lesser things, ultimately developing science of understanding to science of manipulation.

3. Biotechnology and bio-prospecting
As a consequence of such manipulation, we applaud recent developments in biotechnology. Scientists are presently scouting through traditional/indigenous cultures and knowledge systems for morsels of information that could lead to 'discoveries' that could be commercially exploited,. Such 'bio-prospecting' by the ever-expanding pharmaceutical industry has exploited traditional knowledge in genetic resources to produce drugs for the world market after protecting their investment by patenting the extraction processes or the ultimate products. One example is the Hoodia plant. The San have traditionally used the roots of this plant as an appetite suppressant, but now refined products marketed as 'Hoodia' are sold in the U.S. at a cost of $30.00 for 30 capsules. Another example is the Wapishana. The indigenous communities living in the Amazon basin along the Brazil-Guyana border have long used the cunani bush to catch fish. When the chewed leaves are thrown into a river, fish in the immediate vicinity reportedly leap out of the water and soon die. A British biochemist isolated and then patented the active ingredients of the plants he had collected, after he proved that they were powerful nervous system stimulants and could be used as neuromuscular agents that could prevent heart blockages.

This increasing importance of traditional knowledge cannot be ignored, especially in the development of genetic resources that contribute significantly to pharmaceutical and agricultural industries around the world. Traditional knowledge reduces search time by the pharmaceutical company.

4. Other uses
Not all examples of the commercial exploitation of traditional knowledge and technologies are pharmaceutically based. The Kikuyu and Kamba communities in Kenya have weaved and used the kiondo basket for as long as they can remember. The kiondo basket is legally recognized as an expression of folklore, thus copyrightable, but has been protected under a Japanese patent, with the Kenyan communities receiving none of the financial rewards.

Figure 2: An illustration of the East African kiondo

II. Intellectual property regimes (IPRs) and their drawbacks
Modern intellectual property rights regimes help create, manage and control equilibrium between the secrecy of innovation and the rewards of the market. Modern IPRs, by rewarding individual innovation, make the scientific process a lucrative business. One example of such regimes is the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs), effected through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The agreement has, however, sparked considerable protest among the indigenous and local communities who believe that it would erode the already fragile rights of communities to control the use of their knowledge. One of the biggest issues has been whether a product derived from traditional knowledge can truly be called an invention - one of the prerequisites for the right to patent. After the TRIPs agreement, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) attempted to address the issue through its Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources. The committee looked at ways to take traditional knowledge systems into account in the development of IPRs systems through sui generis approaches. This was opposed by some indigenous movements who argued that the sui generis protection of traditional knowledge rights is nothing more than an attempt to assimilate indigenous rights into Western property systems and bypass the real issue - the rights of indigenous peoples to direct control over lands and resources in traditional territories.

III. Conclusion
Some of these traditional 'science and technology' innovations have survived deliberate onslaught by hegemonic Western scientific influences. The creative and innovative traditions in various developing countries have been masked by historical misrepresentations by pedagogic and policy-induced blinders internationally and domestically created. From an early age, students learn the major Western scientific inventions, and rightly so, but seldom do they learn about grassroots or higher level inventions and innovations developed by local individuals, institutions or communities with in their respective countries. And when local contributions are indeed taught, these are referred to with terminology which may generate contempt rather than respect for the native and innovative genius. Traditional technological processes should form an important aspect of our science curriculum. We must study our own traditional ways and then innovate when necessary to suit our modern lifestyles. We should look to our traditional technologies for improving our present condition rather than frowning on them and looking extrinsically.

Furthermore, as the jury is still out on the relationship between a modern intellectual property rights regime and traditional knowledge, a lot more needs to be done to mitigate against the imbalances thus caused. These knowledge systems ought to be individually and separately preserved as these may produce technological/industrial revolutions as witnessed on other continents.

May 2006

Cindano C. Gakuru is resercher and works in Kenya ( )


  1. WIPO, Intellectual Property Needs And Expectations Of Traditional Knowledge Holders. Report On Fact-Finding Missions On Intellectual Property And Traditional Knowledge (1998-1999) (Geneva: WIPO, 2001), p. 25 available at
  2. See for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity, 5 June 1992, art. 8(j), 31 I.L.M. 818. The Draft U.N. Declaration, uses the expression 'indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices.' In its more recent documents, WIPO uses the expression 'traditional knowledge, innovations and creativity.' See Intellectual Property Needs and Expectations of Traditional Knowledge Holders, WIPO Report on Fact-finding Missions on Intellectual Property and Traditional knowledge 21-22 (1998-1999).
  3. Schumacher, E. F., A Guide to the Perplexed, London: Penguin 1977, p17-19.
  4. Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, trans. Elizabeth Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, 1971). The purpose of ‘science of understanding’ is the enlightenment of the person and his liberation.
  5. The purpose of which is power: 'Knowledge is power' said Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) and Descartes promised men that they shall become 'masters and possessors of nature.' In its further development, ‘science of manipulation’ inevitably led to the manipulation of nature to the benefit of humankind, through what some believe is as a result of the arrogance of materialistic scientism.
  6. These communities are experiencing what many other indigenous groups and local societies are suffering with alarming frequency throughout the tropics: the appropriation of traditional knowledge by scientists, researchers, missionaries, environmentalists, activists of indigenous people’s rights, and other disguises.