Many societies in the developing world have nurtured and refined systems of knowledge of their own. They include knowledge in the areas of geology, ecology, botany, agriculture, physiology and health. They are based on empirical observations made in the ‘laboratories of life’ rather than formal scientific institutions. They have emerged from centuries of efforts by communities. We are now seeing the emergence of terms such as ‘parallel’, ‘indigenous’ and civilizational’ knowledge systems to describe this body of knowledge.
Such parallel knowledge systems are expressions of diverse ways to the acquisition and production of knowledge. Indigenous knowledge and innovation systems must be sustained through active support to the societies that are keepers of this knowledge, their ways of life, their languages; their social organization and the environments in which they live.
Finally, we must bring benefits to those who innovated in the “laboratories of life”. An experience in India is worth sharing. It relates to a medicine that is based on the active ingredient in a plant, trichopus zeylanicus, found in the tropical forests of southwestern India and collected by the Kani tribal people. Scientists at the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) in Kerala learned of the tonic, which is claimed to bolster the immune system and provide additional energy, while on an expedition with the Kani in 1987. These scientists isolated and tested the ingredient and incorporated it into a compound, which they christened “Jeevani”, the giver of life. The tonic is now being manufactured by a major Ayurvedic drug company in Kerala. In 1995, an agreement was struck for the institute and the tribal community to share a license fee and 2% of net profits. This marks perhaps the first time that for intellectual property held by a tribe, a compensation in the form of cash benefits has gone directly to the source of the intellectual property holders. We need to multiply such examples globally.
Indigenous knowledge is a living cultural heritage. It transforms and adapts as it is transmitted from generation to generation. There is a need for greater awareness about the cultural relationships between various knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge systems must be sustained through active support to the societies that are keepers of this knowledge, their ways of life, their languages; their social organization and the environments in which they live.
There is a clear need for systematic and in-depth analysis of the parallelism of insights between indigenous and civilizational knowledge systems, on the one hand, and certain areas of modern science concerned with fundamental aspects, on the other. In particular, a strong linkage between the indigenous knowledge holders and scientists is needed to explore the relationship between different knowledge systems. For instance, there is a tremendous scope to develop eco-technologies based upon appropriate blends of traditional wisdom and modern science. Some of the greatest opportunities are provided, especially in the Indian context, in the area of traditional medicine. If we build on those, then ‘Indian System of Medicine’ can become ‘Universal System of Medicine’.