Guarding Against Exploitation: Protecting Indigenous Knowledge in the Age of Climate Change

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Brewer, Joseph II and Kronk Warner, Elizabeth Ann
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Indigenous knowledge has the potential to ameliorate the extreme, destructive impacts of climate change. Given their enduring connection to place, indigenous communities are the subjects of knowledge acquisition relevant to the changing climate. Yet, because this traditional knowledge has been exploited by outsiders, indigenous communities may be wary to share such valuable information with individuals outside of their communities. And, even if traditional knowledge is shared, indigenous peoples may wish to maintain control over its use to guard against exploitation. This article addresses concerns associated with the stewarding of such traditional knowledge, in hopes of providing legal structure to the conversation. As the application of traditional knowledge becomes more apparent in the climate change context, a conversation to invoke action in the academy and legal systems is needed to create structures that value as well as protect the complexities of indigenous community-based research. Ultimately, this article strives to explore methods of holding those who seek and steward traditional knowledge accountable to indigenous communities. To accomplish this goal, this article examines traditional knowledge held by tribes within the United States that may prove helpful in the fight against the deleterious impacts of climate change. Then, having identified valuable knowledge possessed by tribes, the article goes on to examine the potential for existing domestic and international law to protect against the exploitation of such knowledge. After concluding that the existing law provides inadequate protection at best, the article asserts that tribes may be better served by enacting their own tribal laws to protect against such exploitation, and then explores the existing tribal law enacted to protect tribal traditional knowledge. This is the first article to provide concrete examples of traditional knowledge useful in combating the impacts of climate change and how the law may apply in such instances. This is also the first article to examine the use of tribal law to address the protection of traditional knowledge in-depth and provide a discussion of how some tribes are already utilizing tribal law to accomplish such goals. Accordingly, this article constitutes an important addition to the scholarship surrounding protection of traditional knowledge.


Brewer, J. I., and E. A. Kronk Warner. 2015. Guarding Against Exploitation: Protecting Indigenous Knowledge in the Age of Climate Change. Social Science Research Network.