Traditional Knowledge Initiative


  • Awareness of the value of traditional knowledge (TK), innovations, and of indigenous and local communities around the world— particularly their potential contribution to sustainable development and poverty alleviation — is growing at a time when such knowledge is being threatened as never before. The UNU Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) Traditional Knowledge Initiative investigates the threats to and methods for maintaining, and the resilience of TK systems. The TK Initiative, through its targeted research and training activities, seeks to build greater understanding and facilitate awareness of TK to inform action by indigenous peoples, local communities, and domestic and international policymakers. Key outputs include research activities, policy studies, capacity development, and online learning and dissemination.

    Focal Point

    Senior Research Fellow Sam Johnston is the main focal point leading the Traditional Knowledge Initiative.


    The initiative aims to promote and strengthen research on traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities conducted from a global perspective, grounded in local experience. The initiative hopes to provide an important opportunity for indigenous peoples to make focused, constructive, effective and solutions-oriented contributions to discussions taking place within the United Nations and other international and domestic fora. The institute seeks to provide relevant parties to discussions, including developing countries, with independent and well-informed data and policy analysis in an effort to enhance the quality and rigour of debate on TK issues at the international level.


    In an effort to build understanding and facilitate greater TK awareness, the initiative carries out community grounded research through an inter- and multidisciplinary approach using diverse research methods aiming to inform indigenous peoples and local communities, domestic and international policymakers, relevant non-governmental organizations, observers and donors working in related areas such as indigenous issues, climate change or biodiversity.

    The initiative’s actions to promote and strengthen research on traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities include developing the application of TK in a broad range of contexts (e.g., ecosystem management and biotechnology); developing strategies for the preservation and maintenance of TK; facilitating the development of the capacity of indigenous communities to conserve and apply their knowledge in an increasingly globalized economy; and increasing the recognition and importance of TK globally and within the region in which it is hosted, especially within the academic community.


    The initiative — through its proposed governance, structure and research and training programmes — will provide the opportunity for both men and women from indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds to contribute.

    Target Audience

    The main beneficiaries include indigenous peoples, local communities and the general public. The benefits to indigenous peoples and local communities include increased training and capacity building opportunities, enhanced access to policymaking processes and overall contributions to improving the well-being of indigenous peoples and local communities. The general public will benefit from an improved understanding and application of benefits that the maintenance and application of traditional knowledge brings to pressing global problems, and an improved appreciation of the inherent value of bio-cultural diversity.

    Intended Impact

    Impact: Influencing policymaking in the United Nations System
    Target: The initiative targets indigenous peoples and their organizations, in addition to UN and other international organizations.
    This will be achieved through empowering indigenous people to have their voice heard in international negotiations.

    Value Added

    Traditional knowledge-related discussions already feature prominently in a number of United Nations fora including the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Other relevant fora may include the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; the Food and Agriculture Organization (i.e., the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources); United Nations Conference on Trade and Development; processes of the World Bank and regional development banks; initiatives such as the Millennium Assessment and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology; and the work of regional organizations such as the Organization of American States.


    The programme will disseminate its research findings through publications (e.g., books, reports and working paper series), media releases, meetings with the community of academics and practitioners in the area (including UN staff) and possibly training workshops.

    Timeline/Programme Cycle

    The Traditional Knowledge Initiative was established in 2007, when it started its operations in Australia. UNU-IAS plans to continue with the initiative until at least the end of 2012.


    The initiative will have internal and external evaluation committees to assess its results. An internal evaluation will be carried out every year and an external evaluation every two years. The external committee will be composed of some of the best academic people in the area available in Japan and/or abroad.


    The challenges to this initiative are maintaining funding from a number of potential donors for future activities and the longevity of the initiative.

  • Activities within the programme will involve cooperation between the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies and four partners:

    • Convention on Biological Diversity
    • United Nations Development Programme
    • United Nations Environmental Programme
    • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • United Nations University
    Institute of Advanced Studies
    6F, International Organizations Center, Pacifico Yokohama
    1-1-1 Minato Mirai
    Nishi-ku, Yokohama
    Japan 220-8502