Adapted from Beyond Intellectual Property: Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities by Darrell A. Posey and Graham Dutfield.

Spun alpaca wool, colored with natural dyes. Pitumarca District, Peru. Photograph by Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel

In 1988 the First International Congress of Ethnobiology met in Belém, Brazil. Indigenous and traditional peoples (those referred to in the Convention on Biological Diversity as “indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles”) from various parts of the world met with scientists and environmentalists to discuss a common strategy to stop the rapid decrease in the planet’s biological and cultural diversity. Major concerns included the unique ways in which indigenous and traditional peoples perceive, use, and manage their natural resources and how programs can be developed to guarantee the preservation and strengthening of indigenous communities and their traditional knowledge.

The congress produced The Declaration of Belém, which outlined explicitly the responsibilities of scientists and environmentalists in addressing the needs of local communities and acknowledged the central role of indigenous peoples in all aspects of global planning. Although the language of The Declaration of Belém may seem somewhat antiquated today, it was the first time that an international scientific organization recognized a basic obligation that “procedures be developed to compensate native peoples for the utilization of their knowledge and their biological resources” (Statement 4). Since 1988, dozens of other institutions, professional societies, and organizations have followed suit.

Declaration of Belém (1988)

As ethnobiologists, we are alarmed that:

SINCE—tropical forests and other fragile ecosystems are disappearing, many species, both plant and animal, are threatened with extinction, indigenous cultures around the world are being disrupted and destroyed

AND GIVEN—that economic, agricultural, and health conditions of people are dependent on these resources, that native peoples have been stewards of 95% of the world’s genetic resources, and that there is an inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity;



1. a substantial proportion of development aid be devoted to efforts aimed at ethnobiological inventory, conservation, and management programs;

2. mechanisms be established by which indigenous specialists are recognized as proper authorities and are consulted in all programs affecting them, their resources, and their environments;

3. all other inalienable human rights be recognized and guaranteed, including cultural and linguistic identity;

4. procedures be developed to compensate native peoples for the utilization of their knowledge and their biological resources;

5. educational programs be implemented to alert the global community to the value of ethnobiological knowledge for human well being;

6. all medical programs include the recognition of and respect for traditional healers and the incorporation of traditional health practices that enhance the health status of these populations;

7. ethnobiologists make available the results of their research to the native peoples with whom they have worked, especially including dissemination in the native language;

8. exchange of information be promoted among indigenous and peasant peoples regarding conservation, management, and sustained utilization of resources.

The Declaration of Belém is currently available in 5 languages:

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