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mililani trask
Indigenous Women and Traditional Knowledge
Reciprocity is the Way of Balance

I. Reciprocity
Reciprocity is a fundamental value of the gift economy. It is also a fundamental cornerstone of Indigenous communities. Reciprocity implies that there is an ebb and flow in relationships, a give and take. Reciprocity infers that there is a mutual sharing, something given for something taken.
In Indigenous societies, reciprocity is the way things work—in society, within the family and extended family frameworks, and in the relationships between human kind and the rest of God’s creation. Reciprocity is not defined or limited by the language of the market economy because it implies that more is owed than financial payment, when goods and services exchange hands. Reciprocity is the way of balance—planting precedes harvesting, sowing precedes reaping. In most Indigenous societies there is a common understanding (sometimes referred to as the “original instructions”), that humankind’s role in the world is to be the guardians of the creation. Indigenous peoples know that if we care for, nurture, and protect the earth, it will feed, clothe, and shelter us.
II. Market Economics and the Gift Economy
The gift economy is diametrically opposed to the market economy. The Gift Economy is collective, the market economy favours individualism. The Gift Economy thrives when there is a bounty to be given. The market economy increases the price and fiscal value of items that are rare commodities. The values, activities, and outcomes of these diametrically opposed economic systems also conflict.
Values: consumption/individualism
Activities: production and marketing/allocation based on ability to pay/buy Results: profit and debt /polarized development of the wealthy versus the
Practice: secularization.
Gift Economy/Indigenous Communities
Values: sustainability, preservation/collectivism, social obligation
Activities: gifting, exchange/allocation based on need
Results: community development and advancement
Practice: spiritualism.
III. Indigenous Women and Traditional Knowledge
In all Indigenous cultures, gender roles and responsibilities flow from and are part of a broader socio-cultural environment. That is to say that Indigenous peoples and societies delineate between the roles which women and men assume based on the cultural protocols and survival needs of their collective society (Cohen 1999). The essential feature of a peoples’ socio-cultural environment is “meaning.” As Walter Rochs Goldschmidt (1990) states:
Each culture provides pathways by which individuals may satisfy their needs for positive affect, prestige and meaning. Small-scale, hunting-gathering societies provide several such pathways: excellence in hunting or story-telling or as a healer. More complex societies offer a greater array of “careers.” Whatever its size, complexity or environment, a central task of any culture is to provide its members with a sense of meaning and purpose in the world.”
“Gender” is a sociological concept that encompasses economic, social, and cultural distinctions between women and men as manifested in their differing roles, authority, and cultural undertaking.
In recent times there has developed an understanding that gender roles in In- digenous cultures establish who in that society (male or female) is the keeper of traditional knowledge. In traditional societies women are the keepers of certain knowledge systems and make use of different resources than those used by men. Where women might gather healing herbs or edible fruits from trees, men would more likely be employed in the timber industry.
For several years, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has explored the relationship between gender and food security, agro-bio- diversity, and sustainable development. FAO’s research and development projects have documented the important role that Indigenous women play in these three critical areas. FAO’s (1999) findings are as follows:
1. Through their different activities and management practices, men and women have often developed different expertise and knowledge about the local environment, plant and animal species and their products and uses. These gender-differentiated local knowledge systems play a decisive role in the in situ conservation, management, and improvement of genetic resources for food and agriculture. It is clear that the decision about what to conserve depends on the knowledge and perception of what is most useful to the household and local community.
2. Women’s and men’s specialized knowledge of the value and diverse use of domesticated crop species and varieties extends to wild plants that are used as food in times of need or as medicines and sources of income. This local knowledge is highly sophisticated and is traditionally shared and handed down between generations. Through experience, innovation, and experimentation, sustainable practices are developed to protect soil, water, natural vegetation, and biological diversity. This has important implications for the conservation of plant genetic resources.
3. Through their daily work, rural women have accumulated intimate knowledge of their ecosystems, including the management of pests, the conservation of soil, and the development and use of plant and animal genetic resources.
4. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of the planting material used by poor farmers is derived from seeds and germplasm that they have produced, selected, and saved themselves. This means that small farmers play a crucial role in the preservation and management of plant genetic resources and biodiversity.
5. In smallholder agriculture, women farmers are largely responsible for the selection, improvement, and adaptation of plant varieties. In many regions, women are also responsible for the management of small livestock, including their reproduction. Women often have a more highly specialized knowledge of wild plants used for food, fodder and medicine than men.
The critical role which Indigenous women play in maintaining biodiversity, conservation, and promoting sustainable development is acknowledged in two international instruments and the action plan of the FAO. The Convention on Biological Diversity (1993) and FAO’s Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (1996a) acknowledge the role played by generations of men and women farm- ers and by Indigenous communities in conserving and improving plant genetic resources.
Two key objectives of Chapter 24 of Agenda 21: The Rio Declaration on Environ- ment and Development (UNCED 1992) are to promote the traditional methods and the knowledge of Indigenous people and their communities, emphasizing the particular role of women relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of biological resources and to ensure the participation of Indigenous women and peoples in the economic and commercial benefits derived from the use of such traditional methods and knowledge.
The Convention on Biological Diversity and the FAO Global Plan also affirm the need for women to participate fully in conservation programs and at all levels of policy making.
Despite these legal pronouncements and the existence of other international instruments that specifically prohibit discrimination against women (such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] and the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), In- digenous women continue to be marginalized and excluded from policy making and program services.
FAO (1999) reports the following:
... [L]ittle has yet been done to clarify the nature of the relationship between agro-biological diversity and the activities, responsibilities, and rights of men and women. Women’s key roles, responsibilities, and intimate knowledge of plants and animals sometimes remain “invisible” to technicians working in the agriculture, forestry and environmental sectors, as well as to planners and policy-makers.
The lack of recognition at technical and institutional levels means that women’s interests and demands are given inadequate attention. Moreover, women’s involvement in formalized efforts to conserve biodiversity is slight because of widespread cultural barriers to women’s participation in decision- making arenas at all levels.
Modern research and development and centralized plant breeding have ignored and, in some cases, undermined the capacities of local farming com- munities to modify and improve plant varieties. With the introduction of modern technologies and agricultural practices, women have lost substantial influence and control over production and access to resources, whereas men often benefit more from extension services and have the ability to buy seeds, fertilizers and the necessary technologies.
FAO’s conclusions in this area are verified by the work of the LinKS Project in Africa:
For a long time, despite an increased recognition at the international level, the importance of local knowledge and gender in agriculture has been neglected in policies and development programs related to agriculture and natural resource management. Modern research, science, and national poli- cies undermine even further the capacities of local farming communities to sustain and manage agro-biodiversity and secure food production. In this context, contributions that bring farmers’ perspectives, their practice and knowledge of biodiversity into focus are important for a constructive policy dialogue on sustainable management of natural resources.
It is clear that sexism, racism, and poverty operate in the United Nations Sys- tem and broader civil society to marginalize Indigenous women. These negative forces need to be acknowledged and addressed as a matter of urgency and as a high priority because of the nexus between women’s traditional knowledge and their role in maintaining biodiversity and ensuring food security.
IV. Countering Globalization
The foundation of globalization is and will continue to be the commercialization of knowledge and data and the commodification of knowledge and the life forms relating to that knowledge.
The primary elements of the information society are knowledge, information (data) and communication. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the transmission instruments used by modern technological states and cor- porations to further communication in all areas including economic and social development, health, education and security.
Traditional knowledge is the basis of all Indigenous cultures. Indigenous concepts and practices relating to knowledge have evolved for centuries and are defined by the socio-cultural environment of each distinct culture. In Indigenous cultures, gender roles and responsibilities determine who is the keeper of certain knowledge systems and how the knowledge is maintained and transmitted within specific cultural contexts. Most Indigenous cultures follow strict cultural protocols for the sharing and dissemination of knowledge and for communications in general. In addition, there is a direct relationship between Indigenous knowledge and traditional land rights. The Forum Expert paper prepared by Marcos Alonso (2003) states:
As for Indigenous Peoples, the generation, transmission, and preservation of knowledge is inextricably linked to their continuing relationship and interac- tion with knowledge from generation to generation in their own way. Traditional knowledge not only contains the history of a people, but also provides the basis for all customs, traditions, and practices like traditional agriculture or medicine. It is holistic in nature and sets a blueprint for proper relationships between humans as a well as between humans and non-humans, such as plants and animals. In summary, it is a core element of the identity of an Indigenous People.
It is only through maintaining and strengthening their distinctive traditional relationship with their lands, waters, coastal seas, and related natural environ- ments that Indigenous Peoples will be able to save their existing knowledge and to secure the flourishing of its development. Only then, Indigenous Peoples will be in a position to share their traditional knowledge on their own terms.
In Indigenous societies knowledge is carefully guarded and often considered “sacred, secret or gender bound.” It is customary with Indigenous peoples who follow an oral tradition that the transmission of knowledge may require years of mentoring, as well as ceremonial undertakings. In Indigenous societies knowledge is the inheritance of the living and the legacy they will leave to further genera- tions.
By contrast, knowledge in the globalized context, is viewed as a valuable eco- nomic commodity that should be freely available to anybody wishing to utilize or commercialize it. Western intellectual property law favours the practice of commodification, reserving exclusive use for a short period of 20 years. In the globalized world, the underlying practice is to view knowledge as a commodity in the public domain.
Given the situation, it is no wonder that Indigenous peoples are in conflict with and oppose state and private sector efforts to obtain traditional knowledge. Indigenous peoples often view scientific and economic research and development as the theft of Indigenous intellectual property and bio-piracy.
Indigenous peoples assert that their traditional knowledge systems are their cultural property and that they should have the right to control the use and application of their knowledge whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes. In addition, Indigenous people are undertaking efforts to establish sui generis systems for protection of their intellectual property while resisting efforts of transnational corporations-pharmaceuticals to copyright traditional medicinal knowledge and patent life forms. There are increasing examples of the unauthorized and inappropriate use of traditional knowledge and there is significant evidence that corporate and state actors are intent upon appropriating not only Indigenous knowledge but Indigenous sciences and technologies including human and other genetic resources.
IV. Globalization and Poverty
The privatization of life, through the western intellectual property regime has resulted in the earth’s bounty being appropriated in the private property of a few individual shareholders and their transnational corporations. The result has been expanding poverty in all regions of the world and an extreme imbalance in the consumptive practices of the developed North. Today, the United State con- sumes 80 percent of the earth’s resources including food, services, commodities, and natural gas and oil. In comparison the developing south, continues to live in extreme poverty and while supplying their natural resources, labor, goods and food to the north, this imbalance is maintained by the multilateral and bilateral trade regimes and international financiers such as the World Bank.
International efforts to address the phenomena of growing global poverty through the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) have proven ineffective because the standard of poverty is linked to the U.S. dollar. Under this approach, people live in extreme poverty if they earn less than $1.20 a day (USD). This standard ignores the fact that real poverty is measured by starvation, hunger, landlessness, ill health, and the inability of people and communities to access land and resources needed for their survival. Despite the fact that the UN Special Rapportuers on Extreme Poverty and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues have called for the definition of extreme poverty to be changed, no action has been taken by the UN System and states to change either the rule of globalized trade or the definition of poverty.
The gift economy provides a workable alternative to globalization and a realistic and achievable approach to poverty. Most importantly, the gift economy is people and community based (see Vaughan 1997). For the developed North it means that people can choose to change their consumptive practices, to do with less, and to boycott goods and products that do not meet the standard of fair trade. Our own consumptive practices drive the market economy and the phenomenon of globalization. By returning to gifting and practicing reciprocity between peoples and among nations, we will be able to significantly impact poverty in the South. Indigenous peoples have a role to play in this humanitarian undertaking. By shar- ing and gifting to others, our traditional knowledge relating to the sustainable use of the earth’s resources and the application of culturally appropriate technologies and practices, Indigenous people can demonstrate to others the path of balance and equitable sharing
IV. Conclusion
If we are to press for a paradigm shift—towards the gift economy and away from market capitalism—we must be involved in and support the efforts of Indigenous women and their communities to protect traditional knowledge and Indigenous intellectual property and oppose the patenting of life forms. The copyrighting of knowledge privatizes the lessons learned and the benefits arising from that knowledge. The patenting of life forms means that a few will own the bounty needed to feed and cloth the world. The gift economy requires that the bounty be part of the commons of all human kind and that human beings, as the guardians of the earth and each other, must ensure the equitable sharing of benefits so that all may share in the gifts of the Creator.
Mililani Trask is a Native Hawaiian attorney with an extensive background on Native Hawaiian land trusts, resources, and legal entitlements. Her work has been cited by the Hawaii Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and published by Cultural Survival and IWGIA Magazines on issues relating to Native people and human and civil rights. In October 1993, Ms. Trask was invited to become a member of the prestigious Indigenous Initiative for Peace (IIP), a global body of Indigenous leaders convened by Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu-Tum, the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to the UN Decade on Indigenous Peoples. Since that time, Ms. Trask has worked in the global arena for passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In this respect, Ms. Trask attended and participated in the United National Global Consultations in Cairo, Beijing, Copenhagen and Vienna as a Pacific Delegate to the Indigenous caucus. She is a founding member and current Chair of the Indigenous Women’s Network, a coalition of Native American Women whose work includes community based economic development, social justice, human rights, housing and health.
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Vaughan, Genevieve. 1997. For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Austin, TX: Plainview/Anomaly Pres..
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