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Traditional knowledge in science

By: Prof. Lance Hill
Department of Biology, University of Papua New Guinea

Little research has been undertaken on the dynamic process by which knowledge is accumulated in PNG societies or the cognitive strategies underlying this process. To paraphrase Levi Strauss (1966) "... the making of pots, fishing for Nautilus or dolphins, the making of salt or the construction of irrigated gardens must all involve a good deal of observation, experimentation, active and methodical research, and a desire for knowledge for its own sake."

Characteristics of knowledge bases - summary

Western scientific knowledge Traditional scientific knowledge
Open system - origins in Chaldean astronomy, Greek and Indian mathematics, Chinese technology, Christianity, now worldwide. Endogenous but inputs from via trading routes, conquests etc. Rooted in local socio-political system and makes sense in that system but elements transferable to other situations.
Curiosity, testing and experimentation based on logic, insight and imagination beliefs and fantasy.

Curiosity, testing and experimentation based on logic, insight and imagination beliefs and fantasy but coloured by mystical and magical beliefs.
Reductionist - ‘divorce of facts and sentiment‘ Holistic - links with past, present and future between individuals, community, environment and heavens.
Rapid replication and transmission Relatively closed being learnt by repetition, demonstration, teacher-student relationship, small groups etc
Increasing internal specialisation  
Proclaimed to be gender free, but.. Knowledge gender specific

Components of traditional knowledge - modified from Agrawal, 1995

Bio-Physical Process Cultural
Biotic resources :

Bio-diversity including plant and animal species, micro-organisms etc. 15th most plant rich country in the world; 12th most endemic rich country in the world for higher vertebrates and butterflies : bio-prospecting
Classification systems

for soils, plants, animals, climate etc : complex systems have been recorded for several societies.

Cultural practices and beliefs
Cultigens and other genetic materials : varieties, races and wild progenitors

PNG is major secondary centre of genetic diversity for some 17 food crops eg 1044 accessions of sweet potato, 600 of taro, 206 of sugar cane, 79 of cassava, 500 of banana, 13 of sago, 142 of aibeka, 48 leafy vegetables and various fruits and nuts etc
Uses of biotic materials in agro-forestry, medicines, construction etc eg over 600 medicinal plants; numerous high quality timber species, ratans, bamboos etc

Artefacts and cultural property including symbols, archaeological, sacred sites and objects
Micro-environmental resources

Individual species available for commercalisation e.g. orchids, oils, mushrooms, insects, reef fish etc.

Management systems : land, agricultural, forestry, fisheries etc

e.g. see reports for each province from the Agricultural Systems of Papua New Guinea; limited access and closed entry regimes for management of fisheries; water regulatory systems
Language, music, legends and thought systems

Issues and concerns

1. Traditional knowledge erosion is rapidly occurring in the face of western style education and development. Accelerating factors include:-

  • Monetisation of subsistence resources
  • Cash cropping
  • Shifts to wage employment
  • Unanticipated side effects of introduced technologies
  • Changes in authority and leadership patterns

2. Coupled with this is a patchy documentation, lack of recognition of the value of traditional knowledge and creative strategies for its incorporation into current education and development practice.

3. The under evaluation of subsistence (and the knowledge base it is based upon) in the national accounts. National Statistical Office estimates take no account of food production, firewood, the cost of house construction and maintenance, and the cost of canoe production. 1991 valuation was K600 million. This is probably a gross under-evaluation. Current knowledge is inadequate to quantify the subsidy value traditional value traditional resource utilisation underpins the economy. The costs of TK loss has major policy implications.

4. Property rights
The use of, and access to, intellectual property in our small communities was relatively easy to maintain. In the modern context this is proving much more difficult, both within and outside PNG. Current legal regimes cover patents (including plant variety rights), copyright and trade marks / design.

PNG is a party to a member of a number of international and regional organisations (WTO, WIPO, APEC), a signatory to various agreements, conventions and treaties (eg GAT, biodiversity, trips) but currently lacks intellectual property legislation, other than the copyright act. however, our membership of some of these require the country to enact legislation.  However , these regimes are problematic in protecting traditional property rights. Some problem areas include :

  • IP law recognises individual ownership, not clan, group or community ownership unless a legally incorporated entity
  • Preparation of applications, deposit fees, handling challenges, infringements, etc are expensive
  • Distribution of benefits

5. Tentative solutions It is clear PNG will have to develop an intellectual property rights legal regime keeping in mind that

  • The scope of ipr is rapidly expanding (eg to encompass human cell lines and crop species) and
  • Are being associated with economic activities not envisgaed until recently (eg bioprospecting for medicinals).
  • The legal regime will need to respect and protect traditional resource oiwners and come to grips with complex questions of benefits distribution.

Following discussions at the recent intellectual property rights seminar it is suggested a way forward might involve :

  • The development of overarching legislation setting out the framework for a government regulatory system
  • Contracts between government and researchers, prospectors etc that sets out specific rights of access, a code of ethics and a framework for benefit sharing arrangements

The application would need to be both internal and external.   Mechanisms will need to be developed for brokering agreements on the behalf of governmnent, community advocacy groups etc.

The IPR seminar had the opportunity to share approaches being undertaken in the Phillippoines [sic], Peru and other parts of the world. these provide a comparative perspective from which to move forward. Sensitive and reciprocal relationships in sharing knowledge need to be established between outside researchers and local community participants for each adds a new dimension to their world view.

Olewale and Sedu summed it nicely:   "we have indicated that we have a good traditional knowledge and older people know a lot about the biology of these animals. we want to work with scientists, but we do not want to see money wasted on finding out things we already know. we can provide this information if we are asked. ...We are not saying we know everything. ... but we, the village people and you, the scientists must co-operate and share knowledfge because we want to learn also.  (Olewale and Sedu, 1982)

Note - Owing to time constraints, Prof. Hill was unable to provide a detailed paper for the Seminar. However, attention is drawn to the significant collection of material in Morrison, Geraghty, Crowl eds. Science of Pacific Island Peoples. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, 1994. 4 volumes

Traditional knowledge in science

By: Prof. Lance Hill
Department of Biology, University of Papua New Guinea
presented at 1997 Waigani Seminars

Authorization has been given by the author to reprint the following material on PNGBUAI.COM web site:

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