Since colonial times, indigenous peoples have struggled to get their legal systems recognised. Yet a community’s vitality depends on its ability to continue to shape its rules and way of life.
Customary laws come from natural resource use. They are locally recognised, enforced by community institutions, orally held and evolve over time. Indigenous communities have customary laws to protect traditional knowledge. Most knowledge is collectively held and open access, but specialised medicinal knowledge may be restricted to family or kin, and is often transmitted only to those best able to use it for community benefit. Social principles or values may also give rise to customary laws. Asociacion ANDES identified three key Andean customary principles that guide all aspects of life, based on literature sources and work with Quechua communities in the Potato Park (Peru):
Reciprocity: equal exchange in society and with nature
Equilibrium: balance/harmony in nature and in society
Duality: everything has a complementary opposite (eg. traditional and Western)
Very similar principles are found in other indigenous communities in Panama, India, China and Kenya, along with collective decision-making, sharing and solidarity values. These values are particularly strong in more remote communities.
Customary values and laws help sustain both biodiversity and rural subsistence economies. They can provide the basis for bottom-up traditional knowledge protection and access and benefit sharing models that strengthen biocultural heritage, rather than threatening it.