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Weighing the Proverbial 'Ounce of Prevention' Versus the 'Pound of Cure' in a Biocultural Context

Date Published: 2004

Full Reference:

Bannister, K. and K. Barrett, 2004. "Weighing the Proverbial 'Ounce of Prevention' Versus the 'Pound of Cure' in a Biocultural Context: A Role for the Precautionary Principle in Ethnobiological Research" in Ethnobotany and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity. Advances in Economic Botany 15: 307-339.


Sharing data and conclusions with the scientific and wider communities is a central criterion for ethical scientific research. As ethnobiology has become an established academic discipline, researchers are obligated to comply with such scholarly norms. However, the dual cultural and scientific nature of ethnobiological research brings into question the appropriateness of certain scientific conventions, particularly the publication and dissemination of some research outcomes. This paper attempts to raise awareness of current issues surrounding the publication of cultural knowledge and information on traditional resources of indigenous peoples that have been documented through ethnobiological research. More specifically, this paper considers uncertainties and potential harms that may result from distancing this indigenous knowledge from its original biological and cultural contexts—such as may occur through publication and third-party appropriation. We hold that publication of indigenous cultural knowledge has positive, negative and unknown consequences, all of which must be taken into account in conducting truly ‘ethical’ research. While we acknowledge that specific consequences are often difficult to predict, we argue that potential harms need not be overlooked. In this regard, we suggest application of the precautionary principle as a useful ethical framework to address several important issues that too often are overlooked by current intellectual property mechanisms, international agreements, academic policies and professional codes of conduct. We propose that the precautionary principle may be a helpful legal and ethical principle to gain a broader view of the intentions and potential outcomes of current ethnobiological research, and to foster greater partnership between academic and indigenous communities.

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