plants db - indigenous
Pacific Edge Permaculture + Media
pacedge at magna.com.au
Wed Jan 2 19:26:08 EST 2002
> 1earth permaculture at permaculture1 at start.com.au wrote:
>> Toby, I'll single your comments out mainly because I'm so suprised and
>> disappointed that you made them.
> All I'm saying. Marcus, is that I prefer to act differently from the way
> that aboriginal woman does. She has the right to do whatever she wants with
> her knowledge... Nevertheless, it's not my way. When someone asks me a
question, I try to give them the fullest answer I can, especially if my
knowledge may benefit others, and for me, this feels right. But I come from
an open society, she, I think, from a closed (and abused) one. As I said,
the contexts are very different.
>> "If a drug corporation withheld access to a new and promising
>> medication because they might lose control over it, we'd be screaming
>> bloody murder. But when an indigenous person does the same, we bow our
>> heads in respect."
This gets back to my assertion in an early email in this string about the
two very different world views a play here and their attitude to
information. I get the impression from this discussion that people would
like some reconciliation of them, but I don't think that is possible. I
think that we should accept their difference, explore the reasons behind
that (as has been going on, so we gain some understanding) and realise that
the world view of the Aboriginal woman and those who prefer open access to
information for the common good cannot reach any happy medium.
In stating " ...I try to give them the fullest answer I can, especially if
my knowledge may benefit others", the author of the above piece states what
is an ethos in Western civilisation. And before respondents point out the
obvious contradiction that corporations in the West (and also in non-Western
countries that have fully undergone modernisation) hold 'privatised'
knowledge (patents, trademarks, intellectual capital), let me say that, even
within largely-traditional societies, the 'privatisation' of knowledge is
also a fact. In the situation I am familiar with, it's the practice of some
farmers of not sharing information about improved farming techniques because
possession of the knowledge confers competitive advantage.
Flick's and Marcus' defence of the decision of the Aboriginal woman to limit
the sharing of traditional knowledge, or to selectively share it verbally
among people she can trust from outside her culture, points out successfully
that her action is understandable in the light of history.
So too is the attitude of other correspondents supportive of the free
sharing of useful information. For those of us born into Western
civilisation, I believe we should look to the best that civilisation offers
- which is a substantial amount - and continue to share information and act
in accord with the best precepts to be found in the West while seeking to
improve the worse aspects.
I am not any sort of apologist for the worst excesses of Western
civilisation and am just as critical as anyone else when it comes to them,
but I believe that this discussion, in citing evidence raised by authors
like Jared Diamond ('Germs, Guns and Steel'), should throw a realistic
perspective on the cross-cultural stuff and show that Western civilisation
is no better or worse than any other. For most of us, it is 'our'
civilisation and the one we have to live within.
As I earlier pointed out, the West has been a particular target because it
has been the latest in history to undergo expansion and to exploit other
civilisations. The direct form of this relationship started to unwind in the
late1940s through the 1970s with the anti-colonial movement which swept
developing countries. The relationship continues today in a less direct form
through the actions of transnational, globalised corporations and
international bodies, yet many of the corporations are not Western.
Nor are Western countries somehow more inclined to domination and
destruction than others. Think of the Ottoman empire, Chinese civilisation
(Tibet, Korea, Taiwan), the Maoris cited by a correspondent in this string,
the former Soviet Union, the Islamist movement within Islamic culture and so
While a critical appraisal of the West is a good thing, and such
self-appraisal a positive part of our culture, I think it is a mistake to
slip into feelings of guilt over the actions of the West in world affairs,
understandable this might be as an initial reaction to studies of the world
situation post-1500 and to the relationship between indigenous peoples and
colonial settlers. Guilt, in my opinion, is not an empowering basis from
which to make improvement because it is self-absorbing and inward-directed.
> I am not sure what "by mouth" has to do with it. If I asked someone how to
> use a medicinal plant and they refused to answer, I would be disappointed
> and probably annoyed; it's not my way, and to me, it doesn't serve humanity.
> But I wouldn't bludgeon them into telling me. My statement was directed to
> westerners (myself sometimes included) who hold a double standard of
> judgment and revile western behavior while unhesitatingly accepting that of
> other cultures.
Perhaps this 'double standard' phenomenon is a relic of the Rousseuian
'noble savage' concept popularised during the eighteenth century - the
notion that traditional societies, being closer to natural systems in their
daily life, were somehow more virtuous than the industrialising West of the
time. We now know that this was untrue and that, in certain circumstances
such as the coastal raiding and cannibalism in parts of the Pacific, it was
the coming of Westerners that brought an end to such practices.
There does remain, however, a trace of the romanticisation of non-Western
cultures in the West (I think this might have been called 'Orientalism' in
the past) and a propensity to reviling Western behaviour (perhaps because,
being enmeshed in it, we can see it most clearly) and of confusing modernism
and Western culture. This constant self-blame and idealisation of the
non-Western does little to improve Western shortcomings and contributes
little to the development of a realistic picture on the non-West.
As for the correspondent in this string who alluded to plentiful government
provision of resources, such as legal services, to Aboriginals, I recall
some years ago Bill Mollison making a public comment about what he called
the 'Aboriginal industry' and to 'Toyota dreaming'.
I think Mollison was referring to the large number of non-Aboriginies
employed in the provision of services to Aboriginies (the 'gravy-train
phenomena). In seeming contradiction, on another occasion when asked about
the wisdom of funding local people in development projects in developing
countries, Mollison stated that it was best to send whoever could do the
job irrespective of where they came from.
>Marcus: She teaches by word of mouth as her way of foiling the pharmecutical
companies. More power to her I say. Those that listen are hearing her
My observation is that when a secret is out it tends to spread at a rate
proportional to the effectiveness of its transmission system. Word-of-mouth
transmission might imply a slow spread, but somewhere along the line of
tellers and listeners will be someone who will jump the information to a
media with a faster means of transmission, such as email, and the secret
knowledge will no longer be particularly secret or limited in spread. A
secret released is no longer really a secret.
>Toby : Most of us would be dead or disabled from some simple disease if it
>weren't for those evil drug companies. I object to classifying an entire
industry--one that we depend on when we get sick or hurt--as evil. They do
some bad and stupid things. They do a lot more useful things. To simply
judge all of them as evil as you (and perhaps that woman) seem to be doing,
and to wish all of them harm, seems foolish.
This is the contradiction of life as a critical Westerner, isn't it? The
only way to get beneficial pharmaceuticals - whether synthetic, modern
medicines of 'natural', herbal products - to those who would benefit most
from them is through the system we are critical of... proprietry medicine.
Medications spread through word-of-mouth will only become available to a
limited extent and in a limited way, thus denying many who would benefit and
lead an improved life from their use that desirable outcome. At this level,
it's a moral as well as an indigenous-rights question - that's what I think
people are getting at.
My own attitude is that the use of medicine of both the modern scientific
type (including that produced through genetic engineering) as well as the
herbal and traditional varieties can improve public health, improve people's
quality of life and, like access to nutritional food, are the basis of any
further individual or community development. They should all be deployed,
according to their capabilities and appropriateness, to improve the
wellbeing of humanity. The issue for me is not so much who owns the
intellectual property, but getting the stuff distributed equitably.
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