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Biocultural heritage, as a concept, has evolved in response to traditional knowledge policies that have tended only to protect the intellectual component of knowledge systems, and not the equally crucial biological, cultural and landscape components. It reflects indigenous communities’ holistic worldview, where everything is inter-dependent and inter-connected.
The International Labour Organisation is a specialised UN agency that aims to improve living and working conditions. ILO Convention 169, concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, entered into force in 1991.
It calls on governments to develop systematic actions to protect the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, including their social, economic and cultural rights, customs, traditions and institutions.
The research team for the Protecting Community Rights over Traditional Knowledge: Implications of Customary Laws and Practices project adopted the concept of 'collective biocultural heritage' as the common vision to link the work in Peru, Panama, India, China and Kenya.
Based on this, the project developed a conceptual framework for assessing the conditions and trends affecting traditional knowledge, and the responses needed to address these.
UNESCO has developed a number of international conventions relating to the protection of cultural and intellectual heritage. The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came into force in April 2006, aims to safeguard oral traditions and expressions, including language, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, and knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. However, it focuses only on intangible heritage.
A number of human rights conventions also provide useful instruments for protecting indigenous peoples’ rights, but in many cases they have not been ratified or fully implemented by governments. Furthermore, existing human rights legislation is mainly directed at individual rights. Perhaps the most important are:
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is mandated to advise other UN agencies on indigenous issues. It is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.
Some regions, such as Africa and the Andean Community, have introduced regional laws to protect traditional knowledge and genetic resources. Where these resources are shared between countries, the laws promote common standards so that those seeking access can’t just go to the country with the lowest requirements. Regional laws also provide model legislation that can guide countries developing national laws, eg. the African Model Law.
Banishing the Biopirates: A new approach to protecting traditional knowledge. K. Swiderska. 2006. IIED Gatekeepers 129.
This section highlights key actors and initiatives that put the concept of biocultural heritage into practice—from indigenous organisations and NGOs, to universities, UN organisations and donors.
Asociacion ANDES (Peru)