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Respect for Traditional Knowledge

Center for International Development at Harvard University (CID)
By Eugene Lapointe
July 19, 1999

Among the world's challenges today and into the new millenium is how to integrate global trade among developing and developed nations with the moral, ethical, and scientific imperative to protect nature's precious resources. The two are compatible.

Ironically, the solutions sought by modern science and technology to today's economic and environmental concerns may lie in experience gleaned from the past. An important component is the preservation of cultural diversity, specifically, the earth's ancient cultures with their heritage of traditional knowledge of how to coexist with the earth's marine and terrestrial resources.

Modern conservation is fraught with well-intentioned missteps and course corrections. Environmental historians know the unintended tragedy of President Theodore Roosevelt's experiment in "single-specie conservation" on Arizona's Kaibab Plateau at the turn of this century. Virtually every principle of biodiversity was violated with terrible consequences to wildlife and habitat.

Today multi-species management to maintain eco-system biodiversity is the approach of domestic and international forums for global resource conservation and the regulation of environmentally compatible trade. This applies to all natural resources including human cultures. The Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on Biological diversity (CBD) are examples.

Since the beginning of recorded history, the formula for nations seeking "developed" status has been tied to the exploitation of natural resources, some sustainable, some not. CITES strives to use modern science and technology to keep trade compatible with the sustainable use and conservation of these resources by avoiding trade-driven overexploitation of nature's resources and fostering conservation principles among people, cultures, and nations most dependent upon wild places and wildlife.

To balance economic development with conservation of the earth's resources, policy-makers must exercise one quality above all others, respect. That may be the most challenging concept facing policy makers today and in the future. It is also the key to how we use the lessons of the past to advance modern science and technology's efforts to succeed in this vital mission.

Respect for the globe's ancient, existing (and, in many cases, most imperiled) cultures is imperative. To promote environmentally sound trade and safeguard natural resources, decision-makers must listen to the ancient lore of terrestrial and maritime cultures whose histories and identities evolved from a symbiotic relationship with nature. That same respect must also be shown to the nations within which the resources and cultures reside.

Because these cultures and nations are often among the most impoverished, there is a tendency among many policy-making bodies towards bias against allowing effective participation by the very constituency with the most to say. They are often relegated to voiceless, powerless "observer" status. Worse, they are helpless when faced by greed-driven governments willing to sell their country's biodiverse richness for the promise of immediate profits from high tech commercial entities.

Ancient ways can provide modern solution seekers with valid approaches to modern problems. If these nations and cultures are entrusted with the stewardship over nature they enjoyed for centuries, they can develop economically and safeguard the world's most vulnerable habitat, plant and animal resources.

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