Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge

Understanding Indigenous Knowledge Systems


Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.

They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

~ Article 1 of the 1989 Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, No. 169, adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO)

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Indigenous peoples’ knowledge is central to millions of people’s lives in developing countries (Shiva, 2002).

Indigenous peoples have argued that IK is inseparable from the biological, environmental, territorial, cultural, spiritual, legal and epistemological context (Tobin, 2009). Ellen and Harris (2000) outline ten facets of IK:

  • localness
  • oral transmission
  • origin in practical experience
  • emphasis on the empirical rather than theoretical
  • repetitiveness
  • changeability
  • being widely shared
  • fragmentary distribution
  • orientation to practical performance
  • holism

The World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO) (2005, p. 4) defines IK as,

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“traditional know-how, innovations, information, practices, skills and learning of traditional knowledge systems such as traditional agriculture, environment or medical knowledge.”

Furthermore, the United Nations Environmental Program more broadly defines IK as encompassing:

… all forms of knowledge… that enable the community to achieve stable livelihoods in their environment. IK is … embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals… It is a set of experiences … It therefore represents all the skills and innovations of a people and embodies the collective wisdom and resourcefulness of the community.

Indigenous peoples’ experiences of community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals and their skills and innovations are all part of IK systems.

IK is vital in the pursuit of poverty alleviation through the promotion of sustainable livelihoods.

The forces of colonialism and the global market economy have eroded the cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems created by indigenous peoples (Shiva, 1997). Understanding the many facets and faces of indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems is integral to reconciling the conflict between Indigenous Knowledge systems and the universal standardization of Intellectual Property Rights over Plant Genetic Resources.

The World Health Organization (WHO, 2001) has explained that, although IK is intergenerational, it is not static and every generation contributes to the knowledge system. As the Japanese writer Nakashima (as cited in WIPO, 2010, p. 1) has said:

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Traditional knowledge is not merely learned by rote and handed down from one generation to the next.  Inherently dynamic, it is subject to a continuous process of verification, adaptation and creation, altering its form and content in response to changing environmental and social circumstances.

An example of the dynamic processes described by Nakashima is genetic resources because they too result from the continuous process of adapting seeds through selective breeding to environmental conditions.

Indigenous models of subsistence living may be better understood through the relationship ethnic communities have with their ecosystems (Calle, 1996).  

IK often refers to elements of indigenous peoples knowledge that is relevant to biodiversity. The special relationship between IK and biodiversity conservation is sometimes referred to as traditional ecological knowledge or traditional environmental knowledge.

Indigenous peoples are an ecological ethnicity. 

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Apffel-Marglin and Parajuli (2000, p. 292-312) define the social category of an “ecological ethnicity” to explain the significance of traditional environmental knowledge.

An ecological ethnicity refers to groups of people who have evolved a sustainable relationship with nature such as peasant communities. However, most peasant communities have been marginalized by development and environmental modernization. Ecological ethnicities have:

… a commitment to creating and preserving a technology that interacts with the place and its nonhuman collectivity in a sustainable manner… the practices of the rural peoples of the subcontinent who are heavily dependent for their livelihood and survival on their immediate environment (and on its biomass) share a great deal in common, despite differences at the level of articulated “beliefs” or “worldviews” (p. 296-297).

The authors explain that ‘ecosystem peoples’ are commonly dependent on the environment and guided by a ‘scientific and moral ecology’ and a ‘moral economy’.

During an assessment of the relationships between culture and biodiversity the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) found that developing countries have 86% of identified larger (vascular/higher) plants, 99% of the world’s indigenous populations and 96% of the world’s farmers (Singaporia, 2007, p. 15).

A study published in Conservation Biology in 2006 used satellite data to demonstrate that deforestation and forest fire were 1.7 to 20 times more likely outside of indigenous inhabited reserves (Cardinato et al., 2007, p. 69).  Di Falco and Perrings (2003) have demonstrated that voluntary collective farms use more plant biodiversity than do private farms. Indigenous communities on collective farms recognize the public value of having many varieties and so protect biodiversity without profit incentives.

Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge  


Many scholars have expressed concern over the rapid erosion of biodiversity in relation to IK as a consequence of the universal standardization of PGR patenting.

Krishna provides a definition of biodiversity,

“The term biodiversity refers to all living natural resources, fauna, flora and microorganisms and their inter-relationships in different ecosystems, forests, wetlands, desserts and so on” (2009, p. 140).

India is one of twelve mega-biodiversity areas of the world and has 6.5% of the world’s recorded species of plants and animals (45,000 plants and 81,000 animal species). The wealth in biodiversity is reflected by a vast socio-cultural diversity of natural resource-based livelihoods and knowledge systems.

Biodiversity is a public good with benefits including (Eyzaguirre & Dennis, 2007):

  • environmental health
  • maintaining food cultures
  • productivity
  • minimizing risks
  • attenuating shocks
  • providing insurance against volatile and imperfect markets.

Biodiversity also has tremendous ethical, symbolic and cultural value (Dankelman et al., 2005, p. 1).

McNeely et al. (1990) classified values of biodiversity as both direct and indirect. Direct values include Consumptive Use Value (non-market value of firewood, fodder, water, medicine, game, etc) and Productive Use Value (commercial vale of timber, fish, crops, etc). Indirect values include Non-consumptive Use Value (scientific research, recreation, etc), Option Value (value of maintaining options available for the future) and Existence Value (value of ethical feeling of existence of nature, etc.).

Biodiversity loss (or genetic erosion) threatens IK systems and results in ecological and economic instability (Thrupp, 2003).

Biodiversity loss increases susceptibility to insect and pest diseases, reduces nutritional health due to the decline in cultivated varieties, decreases adaptation possibilities to changing environmental conditions and accelerates loss of local agricultural knowledge. Biodiversity acts as insurance for farmers against climate change (Bhatt & Shiva, 2009, p. 29). Mixed biodiverse crops outperform modern monoculture cropping systems by two to three times. Traditionally Indian farmers plant mixed cropping systems as insurance in several combinations of seven, nine and twelve crops.

Around 7,000 plant species have been cultivated since the beginning of agriculture (Bhatt & Shiva, 2009, p. 23). Today, only fifteen species and eight animal species provide 90% of the global food supply.


Modern agricultural practices have eroded the genetic foundation of most cultivated crops such as rice, wheat and maize by replacing biodiversity with a few modern varieties.

Furthermore, wild relatives of crops are needed to inter-breed with cultivated varieties to evolve new traits that can withstand climate change. However, the large-scale extinction of species presents a problem to the possibility of evolving new traits that can adapt to changing environmental conditions.

The increasing need to adapt to changing conditions in society, the environment and the market highlight the urgent need for biodiversity conservation (Pimbert, 1999).

Biodiversity conservation is important for future generations because of the need to conserve useful genetic traits such as drought resistance. Traditional crops bred by farmers are the major source of traits for climate resistance. However, powerful transnational seed/agrochemical corporations have patented these traits as explained by Syngenta chief executive officer (CEO) Michael Mack in April 2010,

“Farmers around the world are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to technology providers in order to have this feature [drought- tolerant maize] (ETC Group, 2010, p. 4).”

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution biodiversity loss has accelerated exponentially.

The extinction rate is now an estimated 40,000 times higher than ever before in the Earth’s history (Dankelman et al, 2005, p. 3). Until the mid-1960s Indian farmers continued to practice ecological sustainable agriculture using mixed cropping, traditional seeds, organic inputs and adapted seeds to particular bioregions (Miller, 2010, p. 1). These techniques have been tested over five thousand years and are part of a socio-cultural and economic tradition.

Biodiversity conservation requires open-access to crop varieties (Eyzaguirre & Dennis, 2007).  When farmers have access to genetic resources the cultivation of local varieties and adaptation of new varieties increases. According to the WHO (2001):

… for traditional communities and individual healers to continue preserving biodiversity, it is important that they be allowed to continue to access and use (medicinal) plants; failure to ensure this will ultimately lead to erosion of their knowledge. Once this knowledge has vanished, plants become ‘anonymous’, lose value and -because of neglect- are at a higher risk of extinction.

Restricting farmer’s access to seed leads to the erosion of traditional knowledge. The loss of indigenous knowledge is of great concern because of indigenous peoples’ capacity for biodiversity conservation.

Green Gold  greenbeans

Indigenous ecological knowledge is commonly referred to as “green gold”  because of it’s contributions to advancements in ecology, health and environmental sciences (Dei et al., 2000; Norton et al., 1998; Shankar & Venkatasubramanian, 2005; Singaporia, 2007; Yuam & Lin, 2000).

Indigenous communities have a wealth of knowledge to offer which has proven to be valuable to the biotechnology industry.

Herbal medicines are the most profitable type of traditional medicine. The world market for herbal medicine has reached forty three billion dollars in revenue. An estimated 4 billion people, 80% of the global population, currently use herbal medicine as a part of their primary health care (WHO, 2001).

IK is the foundation of considerable product development in a variety of industries such as medicine.

Of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74% are used in modern medicine in ways that directly correlate with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures. Biological compounds in plants used for medicinal purposes can easily be isolated by Western chemists and patented as a new “cure” for an ailment.

“Society is the source of knowledge, not an individual claiming rights over an epistemologically petty, but technologically powerful tinkering” ~ Shiva

During the course of research and development companies depend on IK to determine non-toxicity (Siganporia, 2007). IK is also a widely used marketing tool.

Many industries rely on the traditional knowledge provided by indigenous communities to sell their products and profit.

However, indigenous communities have not been recognized, included or compensated by the market economy. According to the United Nations University (UNU), the total annual global market for all products derived from genetics is 500-800 billion dollars. Kate and Laird (2000), qualify that these genetic resources have been evolved by indigenous knowledge systems over many centuries through the traditional practice of seed saving.

These facts and figures provoke the question: why have indigenous peoples not shared in benefits considering the economic viability and usefulness of indigenous knowledge to the biotechnology industry?  

Bioprospecting and Biopiracy 

Bioprospecting includes IK and is related to the rights of local and indigenous communities (Siganporia, 2007). Developing countries have demanded that benefits and profits generated from bioprospecting must be shared with the original providers of genetic resources.

The WHO (2001) describes bioprospecting as the,

systematic search for, and the development of, new resources of chemical compounds, genes, micro and macro-organisms and other valuable biological products…. So, in brief, bioprospecting means looking for ways to commercialize biodiversity.

Bioprospecting products include pharmaceuticals, botanical medicines, agricultural biotechnology, horticulture, cosmetics, and personal care productions (Kate & Laird, 2004).

One problem associated with bioprospecting with regard to IK is that bioprospectors are granted patent rights over their final products and processes without any due recognition of the initial contributors (Siganporia, 2007). Other problems associated with bioprospecting include environmental exploitation, knowledge appropriation and other social and economic problems related to unfair (or the total absence of) benefits sharing.

The WHO (2001) mentions the tendency of bioprospectors to disrespect the rights, knowledge and dignity of local communities.

Bioprospecting often leads to the phenomenon commonly referred to as biopiracy. 

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Indigenous peoples see IPRs as a form of biopiracy (Tobin, 2009).

Biopiracy occurs when corporations and scientists from rich countries claim property rights over indigenous cultural knowledge (Godbole-Chaudhuri, Srikantaiah & Fleet, 2008).

Scholars and activists have described the phenomenon of biopiracy as the theft of IK without any compensation for the use of culturally embedded genetic resources (Mgbeoji, 2006; Shiva, 1997). Industries dependent on patent protection have been accused of misappropriating IK about plants without recognizing the centuries of selective breeding and seed saving that have created the plant genetic diversity on which these industries directly depend (Berson, 2010; Brush, 2007; Calle, 1996, Chowdhury, 2004; Mein, 2009; Miller, 2010; Posey and Dutfield, 1996; Sillitoe, 2010; Vermeylena, 2007).

Marinova and Raven (2006, p. 1) define Biopiracy as,

“the non-consensual extraction of traditional knowledge, biological resources and/or proprietary rights, converting them into one’s own ‘inventions’ and not sharing the benefits”.

According to Gupta (2005, p. 153), biopiracy is the,

“manipulation of intellectual property rights by those intent on gaining exclusive control over genetic resources without giving adequate recognition or remuneration to the original possessors of these resources.”

Finger and Schuler (2004) write that biopiracy results in business in developed countries becoming wealthy off impoverished people’s knowledge at the expense of developing countries stability (p. 160). Indian people have extensive knowledge about plant classifications and botanical medicinal properties that support the survival and livelihoods of the impoverished rural masses (Sarangapani, 2003).

Several case studies of high-profile patents show that the scientific and technical interests of patent holders were supported by publicly available IK (Marinova & Raven, 2006). 

Neem and turmeric are popular and striking examples of biopiracy in India.

The commercial benefits to Indian farmers resulting from the neem and turmeric patents have been indirect and minimal. However, the socio-cultural, spiritual and daily value of neem and turmeric to the lives of small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples is incalculable. Biopiracy is particularly troubling because the original purveyors of knowledge are prevented from using their original technologies.

Thus, biopiracy epitomizes the misappropriation of knowledge and culture.

The burden of evidence and legal pursuit to reclaim knowledge ownership is forced onto indigenous communities (Godbole-Chaudhuri, Srikantaiah & Van Fleet, 2008). The patent of neem as a pesticide is one of the most well known cases of indigenous peoples challenge to biopiracy (Greene 2004; Marinova & Raven, 2006; Finger & Schuler, 2004). Indian farmers have traditionally used neem as a fungicide.

Neem’s properties are mentioned in Indian texts written over 2,000 years ago. Since 1976 the US Patent Office (US PTO) has granted 255 patents for products based on the properties of the neem tree such as gels, anti-wrinkle treatments, insect repellents, disinfectants, fungicides, asthma treatment and wood preservatives.

Similarly, the healing benefits of the spice turmeric traditionally used in Indian cooking, medicine and popular rituals such as the wedding ceremony have been documented and known for centuries (Marinova & Raven, 2006). The medicinal properties include anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Yet, there are 580 US patents based on the properties of turmeric for medicinal uses and cooking products.

The Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) successfully led three legal battles over biopiracy on neem, basmati rice and Nap Hap Indian wheat (Navdanya). The RFSTE, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) of Germany and Ms. Magda Alvoet (former Green Member of the European Parliament) filed legal opposition against the USDA and WR Grace Patent on the fungicidal properties of neem (no. 436257 B1) in the European Patent Office (EPO) at Munich, Germany.

The EPO revoked the neem patent in May 2000 (reconfirmed March 2005) because there was “no inventive step” involved in the fungicide patent, which confirming the “prior art” of the use of neem. In 2001, the US PTO revoked a large section of the US corporation RicTec Inc.’s patent on basmati rice (Patent No. 5663484). In 2004, the EPO revoked Monsanto’s patent on the Indian wheat (EP 0445929 B1) variety ‘Nap Hal’.

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