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Towards Science Diplomacy: The role of Indigenous Communities and Traditional Knowledge

On Wednesday 24th October 2018, representatives from InsSciDE attended the Latin American and Caribbean Open Science Forum (CILAC 2018) to explore issues relating to indigenous science diplomacy.

CILAC is one of the largest open science forums, taking place every two years. It seeks to create a platform for multilateral debate and exchange through its sessions, in order to outline common positions and aspirations for scientific, technological, and innovation agendas. The overall goal is to support sustainable development in these areas, while providing the region with a voice in the World Science Forum.

As the chair and moderator of the session ‘InsSciDE: Indigenous diplomacy and environmental knowledge, an alternative to scientific diplomacy?’ Casimiro Vizzini, from the Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building at UNESCO, led the discussion, introduced the speakers, and asked questions to guide the discussions.

First to speak at the panel session was Dr. Jean Foyer, a researcher at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), who went through the history of communication between indigenous communities and states, exploring the relationship over the last 30 years between science, international institutions (CBD, UNESCO, FAO, WIPO etc.) and social movements. Providing a constructivist political perspective, Foyer demonstrated how traditional knowledge is often ‘naturalised’ in the translation chains from local communities to the global arenas. With recent initiatives in place at the international level, which seek to include indigenous communities, and highlight the importance of traditional knowledge, Foyer posed the question: what does traditional knowledge do in the area of climate change?

With a central focus on indigenous peoples and science diplomacy at local, national and international levels, important questions such as the extent to which the current EU Science Diplomacy Framework could take into account indigenous peoples, were raised and discussed. Foyer discussed how, through an interest in ecological issues, indigenous communities were able to gain greater visibility on the international stage. The extent to which such advocacy indeed provided technical knowledge, or was rather a political tool to increase visibility among indigenous communities was discussed.

Indigenous communities began to claim their rights at the international level in the 1970s, humanising international diplomacy through bringing and maintaining a strong sense of culture and identity to negotiation tables. Since then, there has been a focus, particularly through the different UN bodies, to establish a link between local communities and UN institutions, through increasing diplomatic relations through environmental issues. During the session, this linkage was discussed in depth, with speakers highlighting how indigenous groups are increasingly acting as an international collective, rather than operating within local and national groups.

Dr. Monica Martinez, a professor in anthropology at the University of Barcelona presented on ‘Indigenous Diplomacy, Mother Earth Representations and Territorial Negotiations’. Martinez’s presentation focused on comparing the actions, rhetorical speeches, and forms of the political organisation of the Guna leaders and mediators, to reflect indigenous diplomacy developments.

Discussing the language and discourse surrounding science diplomacy, Martinez argued that the traditional definition of science diplomacy fails to include indigenous communities, as it is solely focused on relations between States. Thus through this definition, Science Diplomacy becomes exclusive. Indigenous Diplomacy, therefore, will only make sense once the colloquial meanings of the term are taken into account and reevaluated, if we want to deal with ‘apparent and interested courtesy’ or ‘skill, sagacity and dissimulation’.

Martinez presented the case of the Gunas of Panama, demonstrating how current definitions make sense for the Gunas, as, despite having an autonomous region but not their own state, they operate as if they are a nation-state. By doing so, this has drawn companies and states to negotiate with them. While their political leaders have struggled to maintain access and control over the region’s natural resources since the 19th century, the fact that they have been successful in controlling their rights over their territory highlights that the Guna have been skillful, sagacious and have acted in disguise. These skills have thus largely aided their achievements in attaining a high degree of political autonomy within the framework of the Panamanian nation-state.

The increasing visibility and international presence of indigenous peoples in the area of science diplomacy helps to humanise diplomatic relations, and facilitates a greater appreciation for traditional knowledge and culture. However, it was also suggested at the session that it is important to see past this ‘romantic’ side of indigenous diplomacy, and acknowledge that it can also have negative effects through increasing the Us versus Them dichotomy, creating a greater polarisation between Indigenous Peoples and nation states.

Finally, Dr. Julie Velásquez Runk, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia presented on the ways in which integrative approaches to how people use and manage their landscapes, relates to science, conservation and indigenous knowledge, and policy. Through research on ecology and conservation practice, Runk highlighted how this work is conversant in natural and social sciences, and can be applicable to help local communities and conservation practitioners.