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Biocultural Ethics

"Biocultural ethics [involves] recovering the vital links between biological and cultural diversity, between the habits and the habitats of the inhabitants. These links are acknowledged by early Western philosophy, Amerindian traditional ecological knowledge, and contemporary ecological and evolutionary sciences, but have been lost in prevailing modern ethics."

~Ricardo Rozzi (2012) “Biocultural Ethics” Environmental Ethics 34(1):27-34.

Complex ethical and legal issues involving use of biocultural knowledge and resources (e.g., traditional plant medicines) has stimulated contentious international debate at the intersection of international environmental and human rights law.

Attention initially focused on the concerted “bioprospecting” efforts of academic-industrial partnerships – the search for naturally occurring chemical compounds and biological materials to use as leads for new commercializable products. A key point of contention is the appropriation of traditional knowledge and resources, which raises key issues of permission, access, credit, rights and economic compensation for use.

Proponents of bioprospecting (largely within academe, government and the private sector, especially herbal, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies) argue that scientific validation and exploitation of traditional medicines or other traditional knowledge will bring prestige and vital economic opportunities to Indigenous and local communities and/or national governments of ‘developing’ countries, provide new cures and other advancements to wider society, and offer incentives for the conservation of disappearing ecosystems.

Opponents of bioprospecting argue that knowledge and resources are being “stolen” from Indigenous and local communities, eroding their cultures and the ecosystems upon which they depend, interfering with cultural responsibilities (e.g., to past and future generations), and undermining Indigenous rights to traditional resources, intellectual property and cultural heritage. Opponents at the extreme end of the spectrum argue all biopropecting is “biopiracy”.

Ethnobiologists have been at the forefront of confronting these difficult issues, which to this day have not been resolvable within western legal or human rights frameworks. What has emerged, and continues to evolve, is a diversity of new cross-cultural understandings and approaches from an ethical perspective. An increasing number of these are being codified and institutionalized at local, regional and international levels (e.g., as formal ethical guidelines and polices).

Consideration of the issues and exploration of their resolve over recent decades has not only changed the discipline of Ethnobiology but has significantly influenced contemporary research ethics policies and practices in Canada and elsewhere. These efforts – particularly through the lens of biocultural ethics - continue to inform our understandings of how we ought to treat one another and build bridges across diverse social, cultural, economic, political and geographic borders.

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Page last updated: 02/05/2013