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Protecting and Promoting Indigenous Peoples Rights in Academic Research Processes: A Guide for Communities in South Africa

By Cath Traynor

Holders of indigenous knowledge, Nama pastoralists, Khuboes, Richtersveld, South Africa
Research involving communities and their knowledge can result in unintended negative impacts: A new guide supports communities to understand the law, harness their rights and negotiate more socially just research processes


During a collaborative research project * that investigated climate change and the role of indigenous knowledge in assisting communities to adapt, members of Indigenous Nama and Griqua communities in South Africa raised concerns about research processes in general. As expert knowers in how research and knowledge has historically been produced involving indigenous peoples, they articulated inherent conflicts that arise when participating in research that is primarily designed and led by those outside of their communities. Conversations revealed that although their communities have a culture of sharing, they were hesitant to share their knowledge with researchers because of the risks involved, and that in the past their contributions had been left unacknowledged and they hade received little or no benefit from participation.

The Guide

The guide arose in response to these concerns. The guide begins by exploring the global context and shared concerns among diverse indigenous communities. Legal instruments, both international and national are then introduced, and the possible implications of the current “Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge Bill [B6B-2016] and what it may mean for communities explored. If the Indigenous Knowledge Bill becomes law, it will only protect knowledge that is registered under it. If communities want to ensure their indigenous knowledge is protected they would be well-advised to record and register it, prior to sharing it with outsiders, including researchers.

Academic research ethic processes are scrutinised, and as they typically focus on human ‘subjects’ and assume that knowledge is held individually – rather than collectively – they can fall short of addressing the collective rights of communities. Many researchers assume that if they have been granted ethics approval from their Research Ethics Committees (RECs) or Internal Review Boards (IRBs) they have “ticked all the boxes” – those working with indigenous communities and on indigenous/traditional knowledge issues should critically scrutinize their affiliated institutional ethics processes.

The guide discusses indigenous rights in the context of academic research practices, including free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) and intellectual property rights.  Adhering to the principles of FPIC, communities should be in a position to make an informed decision on the potential risks and benefits of proposed research, and the guide highlights some key areas.

Finally, the guide wraps up with some tools that indigenous communities and their allies are developing that can be used by communities to better engage with potential researchers and their institutions and negotiate more socially just research processes. These tools include research ethics guidelines devised by communities (for example see the South African San Institute ‘Code of Ethics for Researchers’), and Community Protocols. Our own collaborative research project together with Dr. Laura Foster (Department of Gender Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington) and Dr. Tobias Schonwetter (Intellectual Property Unit, University of Cape Town) together with Nama and Griqua community leaders and youth developed ‘Community Research Contracts’ as a technique to refuse normative research practices, to make researchers more accountable to communities, and for researchers from outside of South Africa to specify that South African laws will apply.

The guide is available for free download in English and Afrikaans.

* A project in the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (OCSDNet)

Photo Credit: Photographer: Damien Schumann Photography. Copyright: Richtersveld Traditional Nama Council

26 June 2018




Climate Change, Traditional Knowledge and Benefit Sharing


South Africa

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