Science in Society Archive

I-SIS miniseries - Hidden Lights at the Earth Summit, Sept 2002

The official World Summit on Sustainable Development has failed by all accounts, which is hardly surprising. But all is not lost. This miniseries brings you some of the many highlights overlooked by the mainstream media.

  1. Africa Unites Against GM to Opt for Self-sufficiency
  2. Green Revolution Pioneer Supports Small Farmers
  3. Canadian Farmers Against Corporate Serfdom
  4. Ethiopia to Feed Herself
  5. Launching Convention on Knowledge at Earth Summit

Launching Convention on Knowledge at Earth Summit

The conference 'Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge' at the Earth Summit provided the perfect setting to launch our 'Convention on Knowledge', which calls for diverse knowledge to be developed and used ethically, responsibly and for the good of all. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Within a week of the Earth Summit, our discussion paper, 'Towards a Convention on Knowledge', jointly sponsored by ISIS, SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility) and TWN (Third World Network), was adopted by two further organisations, the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES), and the Tebtebba Foundation.

INES, with more than 90 organisations in some 40 countries, including a trade union of 1.5 million members, is possibly the largest network of scientists in the world. Tebtebba Foundation, on the other hand, is an umbrella organisation that represents all the indigenous peoples. Everyone was delighted with having joined up in pursuing our common goals.

Although the discussion paper originated with me, many people have contributed to it since. I first drafted it shortly after attending the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in February this year, where I was struck by how the fifty thousand gathered, almost with one voice, rejected the globalisation imposed by the World Trade Organisation, and called for 'a new model of world governance and finance'. But no one was targeting the dominant knowledge system of the west, which was providing both the intellectual impetus for globalisation as well as the instruments of destruction and oppression. I released the draft with trepidation, to only a few people at first, but was soon overjoyed and surprised by the enthusiastic response, from fellow scientists and, most importantly, from third world and indigenous peoples' representatives.

It shows that the vast majority of scientists, like ordinary citizens, are deeply concerned about science and what science and technology are doing to our world. These range from the destruction of the global ecosystem, the hazards of genetic engineering and threat of eugenics, science serving aggressive military ends, to the commercialisation of science, the privatisation of knowledge, the role of science and technology in creating inequality and conflict, and the destruction of indigenous knowledge systems.

"It contains everything we have been working for!" says Armin Tenner of INES, "We have been involved in promoting international peace, ethics, justice and sustainable development as scientists."

The same concerns are widely shared by people living in Third World countries. "The poor bear the brunt of the destructive impacts of bad science and technology," says Martin Khor, director of the TWN, "whether it be climate change, or environmental degradation created by intensive agriculture, chemical and biological pollution." The paper is the start of "a dialogue that will lead to greater sustainability".

Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, director of Tebtebba Foundation, is calling for people everywhere to support the paper and to "get involved in its principles and ideas", to "stop the improper use of science and promote indigenous knowledge and holistic science."

"It is a very useful and important document, and we definitely need something like this," says Eva Novotny, "We in SGR have been promoting the ethical practice and use of science and technology. But this paper also goes into the kind of science and technologies we should support."

One of the more contentious claims of the paper is that "western science itself is undergoing a profound paradigm change towards an organic perspective that has deep affinities with indigenous knowledge systems". It further calls for "equal working partnerships" between indigenous and organic western approaches.

But it took the serendipitous launch of the 'Convention' at the Earth Summit to make me realise how important it is to promote such a paradigm change in western science.

It was well nigh impossible to organise an official launch for, especially at such short notice. Fortunately, a pre-scheduled event, organised by UNESCO and our partner, Tebtebba Foundation, with the International Council for Science and the International Chamber of Commerce, provided the perfect setting, a daylong conference 'Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development'.

Victoria Tauli-Corpus introduced the conference and mentioned our Convention right at the beginning. I waited until the official programme ended and took a few minutes to say something more. By then, all 500 copies of the paper printed in a booklet format were taken, and more people were asking for it.

In the course of the day, many of the important issues addressed in our 'Convention' came up again and again: destruction and denigration of indigenous knowledge, biopiracy, the clash between western scientific approach and holistic indigenous knowledge, the commercialisation and corruption of western science. Increasingly, one realises that the rich, precise and all-embracing repertoire of the indigenous scientist simply has no equivalent in the mechanistic approach of the dominant knowledge system. The latter's instruments and concepts are blunt and undiscerning in comparison, ending up doing violence even without intending to.

Things came to a head in the last session of the day, "Keepers of traditional knowledge: issues of protection and sharing".

Dr. M. Addy from Ghana, gave an impassioned plea on the need for validation and standardisation of traditional herbal medicines, so they can be regarded 'as good as the other drugs', and the benefits can be extended to people widely beyond the local community. The herbal medicines can also be properly regulated with validation and standardisation, and modern scientific methods can be used for such purposes.

In contrast, the last talk, given jointly by Maori healer, H. Kereopa, and Maori scientist, M. Leach from Waikato University, on 'Investigations of the native medicinal flora used by Tuhoe Maori', took the opposite view. In their collaborative project, it is the healer, Kereopa, who led the investigations, the aim of which is to benefit the Maori community more effectively. "We are not interested in validation," said Leach categorically. "We are interested in further developing the traditional medicine itself, to bring that to the modern age." They solved the intellectual property rights issue by giving that back to the local Maori community.

But it also became clear that there were elements in the medicine that cannot be 'validated' nor standardised; that cannot be put into a package. These healing qualities belonged to the entire physical, cultural and aesthetic landscape with all its inhabitants, to the process of healing that encompasses the whole (see box).

Some of the medicine cannot be put in a package

When Kereopa, the traditional Maori healer got up to speak at the final talk of the day, you knew you were in the presence of something big, much bigger than the conference hall itself. In a booming voice that projected far beyond the range of the microphone, he told you the story of his life.

From the age of four, he avoided going to school except for 2 weeks every year, a week at the start of the term, and another week just before Christmas. He was, instead, 'dragged' across the country, "attending meetings, observing things and living with other tribes".

At the age of 16, he decided to travel the world. He got into Australia, but no one could understand him. He started conversing with an Australian, who turned out to be a Yugoslav, who taught him English. Kereopa continued to travel the world, only to realize how rich his own culture was with things he learned from his fore parents. He was fluent in the identification of trees and types of diseases some of them have. He knew some of the "tricks" of living with the whole environment: "the sun, the air, the hailstones, the trees, everything".

"If there is a need for rain, if you ask for it you will get it," he said, "I was tempted to try to use that faculty to satisfy my curiosity. But I pulled back always, while it was safe."

When he identifies a plant or a flower, it is really the power in the plant or the flower that he recognizes, much as a poet or artist does, and he diagnose the right trees for the right disease in the very same way.

"I line up the person in the whole environment, and somehow I find the tree," he said. "Herbs have a spiritual healing component, yes, but it is also the process that heals you, psychologically."

"Things other than the physical plant has to be brought in, the whole environment has to be brought in."

"You cannot stay in your university and keep on sciencing and sciencing," he said, when asked how western scientists and indigenous healers like himself could work together, "The future is up to you."

Kereopa demonstrated so clearly for us how the dominant knowledge system is based on severing our indigenous connections with nature, and going against the very roots and bones of our being. He was lucky to have escaped the ravages of the education system.

Growing up in Hong Kong after the Second War, I experienced the relentless drive "to be modern and western" that left me confused and hurt. And so I clung to grandmother. Until I became a scientist, and discovered for myself that there could be another kind of science.

It was the failings of the dominant knowledge system that brought fifty thousand to the streets of Seattle in November 1999, which galvanised the anti-globalisation movement. The dominant paradigm has also failed within science. Across the disciplines, from the study of complexity in mathematics and co-operative phenomena in physics, to the 'fluid genome' in molecular genetics, the mechanistic concept of nature has been found thoroughly inadequate.

Most significantly for some of us, the message from quantum theory is that we are inextricably entangled with one another and with all nature, which we participate in co-creating. This shows it is possible for us to get back to our indigenous connection with nature, even from within western science itself.

Then, and only then will we be able to reconnect with indigenous knowledge systems that have sustained human beings within nature for tens of millennia. Only then will we be able to fully appreciate the soul of the poet that motivates every great scientist.

The complete discussion paper is posted on the websites of ISIS, SGR and TWN. Please e-mail us, at or or to express your support. You can also sign on at the I-SIS website directly. Detailed comments are also welcome. Please send them to Dr. Patrick Nicholson SGR, PO Box 473, Foldestone, Kent, CT20 1GS, UK e-mail:, who will collate them.

Article first published 09/09/02

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a tripod?