Local Knowledge and Local Technologies

At the World People's Conference on Climate Change, the emphasis on local and indigenous knowledge stands out.
Cochabamba marchers 1

Photo by Tupac Saavedra and Lauren Rosenfeld.

In the working group “Development and Technology Transfer,” the day’s discussions opened with a conflict that was emblematic of the North-South tension in this week’s People’s Summit.

A member of the Summit planning team, a Spanish-speaker in a suit and tie, brought the group together to elect its president. He introduced as a candidate Victor Menotti, the executive director of the International Forum on Globalization, based in San Francisco. Victor has been a well-known figure in globalization issues for more than a decade, and is also a competent Spanish speaker. Despite a room full of South Americans, no other candidate was nominated.

Then one participant, Ramiro Palizza Ledezma, a historian from La Paz, spoke up. “We are a group that is in the majority Spanish-speaking, and what’s more, we have many skilled participants from this continent present. We have academics, organizers, and miners, and our indigenous compañeros, who are experts in their knowledge of indigenous practices and technologies, present,” he reminded the group.

He suggested that perhaps someone from this group itself should lead, and his comment prompted a small flood of calls of agreement. In the end, the group settled in a three-way leadership that included Victor, an English-speaking woman, and a leader from the national indigenous organization CONAMAQ. He started off the discussion with a discourse in Quechua that was only slightly muffled by the coca that filled his cheeks.

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This issue of valuing the knowledge and abilities of indigenous peoples and those from the South was an undercurrent to the rest of the afternoon as it is to the Summit as a whole.

One part of combating climate change is making effective use of technologies, including solar energy. Here, the discussion is not only about how wealthy countries can share that technology with less wealthy ones, but also about how to do that in a way that takes into account local realities.

“For example, we should not put solar panels to use in La Paz, where the whole landscape is up-and-down and the area does not get consistent sunlight,” said Roberto, the young man who moderated the sub-group discussion. Another participant explained that countries like Bolivia are buying technologies that are inappropriate for their needs because another country or a transnational company sells them to them.

Some of the other ideas suggested at the meeting included scholarships for international study that also bring those students—and what they learn—back to their home countries, and sharing best practices between Latin American countries.

“Development” is a word that comes up over and over in this conversation. In the meeting today, that word meant liberating Southern countries from dependence on Northern countries for the technologies that can improve their lives and fight climate change. Ramiro, the historian from La Paz, shared his fears for what development can mean. He told me that in a country like Bolivia, development can also mean new forms of competition between people that run against the nature of the culture.

Another participant declared passionately that to even have this conversation, we needed a new word for development that did not carry with it the implication of inflicting such damage to the pachamama, the Mother Earth. The very last comment of the workshop was made by an indigenous woman—one of the only women I heard speak over the course of the discussion—as most of the crowd was already shuffling out of the room. “We have cultivated knowledge that has allowed us to live in harmony with the Earth, and our grandparents have the obligation to pass this information along to our children before it is lost,” she said.

For she and others at the meeting, the wisdom of elders is also a technology with important value.


from the World People's Forum on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

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