Biocultural Diversity and Indigenous Rights


We are all the guests of the green plants around us.   – Ismail Serageldin (1997:5)*

Human and ecosystem health broadly encompasses perceptions and experiences of health and well-being at individual, community, and ecosystem levels. Our relationships with the natural world are defined by our beliefs, values, actions, and inactions. Our choices and consumptive behaviours related to lifestyle, food production, and health maintenance affect the sustainability of both near and distant ecosystems for future generations. So too do the systems within which our major institutions are embedded—whether legal structures that permit environmental degradation, biotechnology industries that disregard cultural values on sanctity of life, government policies that maintain colonial inequities, or academic research practices that are divorced from local priorities and needs.

Biological diversity (the total variety of life on Earth) and cultural diversity (including linguistic diversity) are inextricably linked. In every part of the world, Indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifeways have contributed significantly to maintaining the world’s biodiversity, and also suffered tremendous losses because of ecosystem erosion. The past and continuing losses endured by Indigenous and traditional societies due to colonization and ongoing colonial legacies present an urgent problem with global implications. Economic, social, and political pressures on the world’s biological and cultural systems are increasing due to industrialization, globalization, resource extraction, climate change, and other forces. This presents an urgent challenge for society—and for contemporary scholars and practitioners—to understand the fundamental role of biological and cultural diversity in fostering the health of individuals, communities, and the ecosystems in which we live.

At the core of cultural and ecological health is the awareness that our social and cultural systems are both dependent on and significantly affect the integrity and functioning of ecological systems. POLIS has approached questions related to cultural and ecological health from a number of inter-related perspectives—scientific, legal, political, and ethical. In particular, biodiversity research involving the cultural knowledge of Indigenous peoples, and questions about associated Indigenous rights, responsibilities, and knowledge governance, have been explored through the lens of ethnobiology—the study of reciprocal relationships between human cultures and the natural world.

Dr. Darrell Addison Posey was the pioneering ethnobiologist who opened the international floodgates of concern about protecting Indigenous rights and responsibilities related to biocultural diversity. He made the compelling case for how conventional academic research approaches and western legal paradigms governing ownership and rights erode the very fabric of the Earth’s well-being by undermining Indigenous knowledge systems and lifeways. Posey co-founded the International Society of Ethnobiology and initiated the development of a Code of Ethics in 1996 that has influenced the world’s understanding of these issues. The ISE Code of Ethics underwent an extensive 10-year development process involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of diverse backgrounds from all regions of the world. It was completed in 2006 under the leadership of Dr. Kelly Bannister (who was Chair of the ISE Ethics Committee at the time) with extensive secretariat support from POLIS and assistance of undergraduate student Michelle Reid through the UVic LE,NONET project (designed to support Indigenous students in their educational journeys).

In 2006, undergraduate student Michelle Reid completed a LE,NONET research apprenticeship at POLIS with Kelly Bannister in collaboration with the International Society of Ethnobiology. Michelle’s work involved travelling with Kelly to Thailand to assist with an international workshop and congress that led to the completion of a new Code of Ethics for the Society.

Kelly Bannister and Michelle Reid workshopping the draft Code of Ethics with ISE members at a pre-congress workshop in Thailand, leading to its completion and unanimous adoption. The ISE Code of Ethics (2006 with additions in 2008) promotes mutually respectful and beneficial relationships between holders of traditional, scientific, and technical knowledges.


The question of rights to knowledge is related to how knowledge is governed—and how it ought to be governed—which is related to how knowledge is created and valued in society. Academic research has largely relied on an extractive model of knowledge creation, where social and natural “capital” are collected and channelled into a linear process to create tangible and intangible products and new ideas. Establishing intellectual property rights to the products of academic research has become an accepted part of the academic enterprise, particularly within university-corporate partnerships.

But how does one determine rights to academic research and innovation when these are based on the long-held knowledge and traditions of Indigenous and local communities, such as Indigenous traditional medicines and biocultural heritage? How well or poorly do academic institutions address collaborative knowledge creation, and sharing of associated rights and responsibilities beyond the corporate partnership model? Such questions—directly inspired by the pioneering work of Darrell Posey—raise complex philosophical, ethical, legal, and political issues that have been explored since the inception of POLIS around who owns, has access to, and benefits from creating, claiming, and controlling knowledge and knowledge flows.

A primary focus of POLIS been on examining local to international governance mechanisms for ethical research (e.g. codes of ethics, ethical guidelines, research agreements, community research protocols) to address power relations and facilitate equitable research practices. An ultimate goal of this undertaking is the evolution of new institutional frameworks (i.e. principles, policies, practices) and practical tools that support collaborative and equitable research between universities, rural communities and Indigenous peoples. Major collaborations in pursuit of these goals are summarized below.


Project for Protection and Repatriation of First Nations Cultural Heritage in Canada
led by Catherine Bell (Professor of Law, University of Alberta)
funded by SSHRC from 2002-2006, resulting in to two edited volumes

  • First Nations Cultural Heritage and Law: Case Studies, Voices, and Perspectives edited by Catherine Bell and Val Napoleon (2008)
  • Protection of First Nations Cultural Heritage: Laws, Policy, and Reform edited by Catherine Bell and Robert Paterson (2009)

POLIS’ contributions, through the work of Dr. Kelly Bannister, involved leading a case study in partnership with the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group on Hul’qumi’num hertiage law, culminating in two book chapters and a community report:


Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project (IPinCH)
led by Dr. George Nicholas (Professor of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University)
funded by SSHRC from 2008-2016, leading to an extensive web archive of publications, videos, reports and other resources to foster respect for Indigenous cultural heritage

IPinCH Project Team

The IPinCH Project was a seven-year multi-million dollar international research initiative that involved an unprecedented collaboration of archaeologists, Indigenous organizations, lawyers, anthropologists, ethicists, policy-makers, and others working to explore and facilitate fair and equitable exchanges of knowledge relating to heritage. The focus was on the theoretical, ethical, and practical implications of commodification, appropriation, and other flows of knowledge about the past, and how these may affect communities, researchers, and other stakeholders. The diverse work explored the rights, values, and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge, and the practice of heritage research.

POLIS played an integral role through Dr. Kelly Bannister, who was a co-developer of the project, a steering committee member, and co-lead for the IPinCH work on Indigenous Research Ethics, which culminated in a national ethics policy workshop in 2015 called the  Working Better Together Conference on Indigenous Research Ethics. Key contributions of POLIS included:

  • Copyrighting the Past? Emerging Intellectual Property Rights in Archaeology by George Nicholas and Kelly Bannister (2004)

Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) in Canada

Through Dr. Kelly Bannister as a recognized Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) expert in Canada, POLIS contributed substantially to the federal government’s work on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources (i.e. Access and Benefit Sharing). ABS is the third objective of the Convention on Biological Diversity, ratified by Canada in 1992. Of particular interest to POLIS is ABS involving the cultural knowledge of Indigenous peoples or affecting Indigenous access to genetic resources, and the need for ABS mechanisms to recognize and protect inherent Indigenous rights and responsibilities.


POLIS’ extensive work in the area of Biocultural Diversity and Indigenous Rights laid the foundation for a new field of praxis called Biocultural Ethics, an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural endeavour to influence research ethics policy and practice and to extend ethical awareness beyond research involving humans in ways that respect and embody our interrelational responsibilities to one another and all life on Earth.
* Full citation for quote used with image at top of page:
Serageldin, Ismail 1997. “Equity and Ethics: Twin Challenges, Twin Opportunities,” In Ethics and Equity in Conservation and Use of Genetic Resources for Sustainable Food Security. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome. Pp. 1-6.

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