Author: Júlia Mascarello (Federal University of Santa Catarina and Heidelberg University)

The world exists like a tapestry of culture and traditions. In some places the unique pieces of cloth are chaotically interwoven with each other, in others the original pattern is kept more neatly. Nonetheless, there is hardly any piece that remains completely untouched – free from interaction with the others. The question of which pattern belongs to whom becomes more complex with the mobility and exchanges of our current day and age. With this, the locality of  heritage also shifts. The questions linger… does heritage belong to a place? Does it belong to a thing? Does it belong to people? And if so, who does it belong to?

Intangible heritage has the power to transcend the boundaries of both space and time. Festivals, medicinal practices, food, dances and musical performances can be spread far and wide. All the while they carry the soul of the culture and context it was once born out of. With its power, intangible heritage can be the thread in between the pieces of the tapestry – it can teach, bring together and strengthen the solidarity. It can help blend, find space and facilitate the coexistence of different patterns. However, intangible heritage can also be the exclusive pattern for a specific cloth. It can be claimed, protected and set apart. For with all the weaving and sewing, there comes the danger of appropriation. Intangible heritage thus presents a very fine line of tension from which to investigate the blurry confines of culture, knowledge and the groups that carry it.

In this entry, we travel from Leiden, where the entire town is turned upside down in October to celebrate freedom from the Spaniards almost 450 years ago, to the world of African cuisine at the reach of people in The Netherlands. Then we go to Morocco, especially to Imilchil a high atlas village where a traditional festival is celebrated every year in September. During this event the cultural heritage of the tribe of Ait Hadiddou is presented to tourists and other outsiders. We finally arrive in Brazil in order to find and hear the voices of indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon about bioeconomy and what is their perception on the use of their intangible knowledge in this new worldwide spread idea of economy.

We hope you enjoy the trip!

Brazilian Ministry of Development (2021)


There is a knowledge that is not produced by science. There is a knowledge that lives in the forest and in its people. It is a knowledge that come from ancestors. It is a knowledge that is felt rather than observed, it is practiced rather than learned. It might not be rational, but spiritual. It’s a knowledge about nature and all of its biodiversity which come from interaction. It’s a knowledge that also care about protection and preservation because knowledge without resources is nothing as well as it is resources without knowledge.

For those reasons, this knowledge was for many the times not considered as valid, as universal, even though it is precious. It was even marginalized and could never join the mainstream science since it does not feet the “right” parameters. But now, this same mainstream science needs this knowledge to make its own science and to solve global problems.

Indigenous people and traditional communities’ knowledge have been receiving great attention interest since the emergence of the bioeconomy. In an attempt to create a new economy in which the products and services are bio-based and knowledge-based, the knowledge about the biodiversity and its uses are valuable. And who better to know it than the guardians of the forests, who interact with its biodiversity creating a millennial knowledge that is transmitted through generations in forms of cures, medicines, rituals and products derived from plants and animals, right?

Of course, it is not just since the emergence of the idea of bioeconomy that this knowledge has been receiving attention. The examples of Europeans expeditions to the Brazilian Amazon or in other biomes to map the fauna and flora are several in history. At the same time, the interest in using the Brazilian biodiversity to produce new products within the bioeconomy is still present and can be verified by the huge scientific collaborations with Northern countries, but also in the several cases of biopiracy or misappropriation of traditional knowledge.

In that sense, one might think that bioeconomy might be a new threat to this knowledge, but it can also be a chance of really acknowledging the rights towards the application this knowledge to who produces it as well as getting the benefits from it.

The thing is, there are already lots of government or companies’ initiatives in Brazil to explore the traditional knowledge of indigenous people or traditional communities, for example in Amazonia in Brazil. However, there are few discussions on how dangerous it can be in terms of how can this knowledge, which can be understood as intangible heritage, be protected or how it can be guaranteed that the ones that own this knowledge can benefit from it but specially, how do these people feel about the emergence of bioeconomy and how they feel about their knowledge being used for the development of the Brazilian/Amazonian bioeconomy?

As a researcher in the topic of bieoconomy, I was always very curious about the fact that even though we hear a lot about the need of indigenous peoples knowledge within bioeconomy or examples of products that already exist and that are based in their knowledge, I was surprised that we don’t hear the indigenous peoples voices when we talk about bioeconomy, we don’t know what they think of bioeconomy or about having their knowledge used. And then I decided to look for this voice.

So the first thing I did was to think about how could I reach those voices. The first thing would be of course by talking to them directly, the second would be to look for available information about it, such as studies that might mention something, other way would be to find some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that might represent indigenous peoples interests and also to talk about researchers that normally work with such topics.

However, from the very beginning I realized how innocent I was when I thought about my research question and how difficult it would be to answer it. First of all, I should have considered that, as far as I am concerned, ethnographers normally take a long time to conduct such studies because it takes also a long time to really build a close relationship with indigenous people so they can trust you and your work and until you can really develop deep conversations about it.

Being aware of this first difficulty, I decided to first talk to some researchers I know that already work with Intangible Heritage and that are dealing exactly with the usage of Brazilian indigenous knowledge in the bioeconomy or with endangered cultural heritage. One of them actually gave me some contacts of indigenous people with whom I could talk to considering that these are people who are used to interact with other researches and to participate in interviews. Even though I thought this is not the best approach to get the answers I was looking for, I tried to make contact and see if I could at least some of their impressions.

I could contact 5 indigenous people Yawanawá and 1 Huni Kuin/Kaxinawá which are located in Brazilian Amazon in the state of Acre. The contact was made by whatsapp as suggested by the researcher who provided me the contacts. I approached them by presenting myself, my research and inviting them to contribute to my research by sharing with me their perception regarding my research topic. Unfortunately, only three of them answered my contact. One of them asked for me to provide some questions so she could see if she could help me. The other one mentioned that would also like more information in order to see if could help me, but mentioned that have been facing some internet connection problems. Only one of them started talking about bioeconomy and saying that could try to help me with my research by telling me his perception.

For those that answered me, I tried to put some of my questions along the conversation such as: (i) What do you know about bioeconomy? (ii) How do you feel since the emergence of the bioeconomy and since the first initiatives to develop bioeconomy in the Amazon began?; (iii) What is your opinion about bioeconomy?; (iv)  What is the role of your knowledge/your people knowledge about the forest and its biodiversity for the development of bioeconomy?; (v) How do you feel about having your knowledge used to develop the bioeconomy? What do you think of it? How do you position yourself in this respect?; (vi) What are some of the issues involved in this topic -using traditional knowledge to develop bioeconomy-? However, only one answered me. In his answer, he mentioned he was not really aware about the bioeconomy concept, but that his father was involved to a greater extent in this discussion.

Despite of that, he said his work is more related to medicine and that it has also very much related. He told what he understands about bioeconomy, basically saying that it is everything they have in the forest as well as everything they do and produce based on their knowledge of the forest biodiversity such as the natural medicine, production of oils and ointments. He also mentioned that this is done always thinking about conserving and protecting the forest. Another thing mentioned was how the interaction with the white people happened in history in five different times. According to him, after the first phases mostly characterized by decimation, finally came the current phase of rights and government which involves their right to the land followed by land demarcation but also to the recognition of their culture and traditional knowledge.

From this short conversation, besides he said he is not very familiar with the concept of bioeconomy, I could see that he knows exactly what it is, and that he is aware that their knowledge is part of this bioeconomy. At the same time, it was not clear if he knows about this global discussion on bioeconomy but this is actually an indication of how this bioeconomy agenda is set outside, mostly by Global North countries, and later start being incorporated in the Global South. Even though in the latest, bioeconomy is already happening if we consider exactly what he mentioned about the millenary use of their knowledge into several products as well as if we consider Brazilian successful trajectory in developing biofuels. But also, it might be that his people specifically were not involved in some conflicts involving the misappropriation of their knowledge, for example, or he simply did not know that. Finally, he briefly mentioned that researches on bioeconomy are important for advancing, knowing, learning and producing more about the biodiversity.

Meanwhile I was trying to contact other people for me to interview, I was reading about the topic mostly about the role of traditional knowledge in the bioeconomy as well as trying to identify some cases in the available literature in which the traditional knowledges were used including the deployments from that. I actually found lots of them, but none of the works I read addressed the perceptions of indigenous people.

To give some examples, the literature talks about the access of foreign researchers to the Brazilian Amazon in the 1990s through the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in which there is evidence of the departure of scientific material from Brazilian biodiversity. There is also the specific case of a scientist that was invited to live with the The Ashaninkas to help them in their research about the use of murmuru, a nut from a palm native to Amazon Rainforest. The scientist broke the oral contract that he had with the people and built his company which earns a lot with the sale of soaps made of the murmuru oil.

There is also the case of scientists in Europe and in the United States who filled more than 20 patents on an Amazonian frog poison substances that carries demorphine, a pain killer that is 33 per cent stronger than morphine and is used by more than 10 indigenous communities in the State of Acre to hunt and prevent diseases. Apparently, there are also good cases in which companies worked together with indigenous people, however, there are still different opinions about it and about how good it actually is or was for the people.

After learning more about this context and cases, I got to know and talk to another researcher which have also been interested in this topic and that actually worked closely to it by mapping some specific cases of bioprospection in traditional communities. After all, this researcher emphasized that it would indeed be really hard to conduct this kind of interview, but also that having such a perception is not very easy because the Brazilian Amazon involves lots of traditional communities and indigenous people with different perceptions as well as that are more or less included in bioeconomy discussions or even that are more or less open to talk about that. After that she gave me an overview of initiatives, mostly legal ones, in both the international as well as the national sphere that address some cases in which the traditional knowledge was used and the conflicts that were involved.

As a conclusion, I realized that my interest in knowing indigenous people’s perspective on the bioeconomy actually lead me not to the results I was expecting, but actually towards another conclusion, which might be some of the reasons why we do not have so far, an access to such perceptions.

So, besides the need of these voices being heard, it is not simple to do it. Actually, despite there have been several ethnography studies and despite technology might have facilitated the communication and contact, it is still hard to do since it is also hard to build trust among researchers and indigenous people, which is really justified by the fact that relation with outsiders was not always good along history. Another point of tension is that we might have several voices, with different and contrasting opinions on the subject and they must all be heard and considered. Also, as one of the researchers I made contact told me, normally it is very hard for indigenous people to make their claims for its right over some specific knowledge for example in the National System for the Management of Genetic Heritage and Associated Traditional Knowledge in Brazil.

This blog is part of the Group Intangible Heritage blogs.

Hutspot in chique

Defending his own viewpoint: the case of Imilchil festival

Selling Africa

About the author

Júlia Mascarello is Brazilian, 28 years old and is doctoral researcher in International Relations at the Postgraduate Program in International Relations at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil (PPGRI-UFSC). Currently visiting doctoral fellow at Heidelberg Center for Ibero American Studies and a Junior Fellow at Heidelberg Center for the Environment in Germany. She holds a master in International Relations at PPGRI-UFSC (2020) and is a member of the CNPq research group International Relations and Science, Technology and Innovation (UFSC) since 2018. She is also a bachelor in International Relations at the Federal University of Uberlândia in Brazil (2017). Her master thesis as well as her doctoral dissertation are about Brazil-Germany scientific cooperation in bioeconomy. Her master thesis title is “International Cooperation in asymmetric contexts: An analysis of Brazil-Germany cooperation in bioeconomy” and her doctoral dissertation is about “North-South Relations in Science: The Brazil-Germany scientific collaboration in bioeconomy”. Among her research interests are Bioeconomy, International Cooperation in Bioeconomy, International Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation, Science Diplomacy, Postcolonial studies and Global Inequalities. She is co-founder of a startup named Tech to Go and also has professional experience as project manager and fundraiser in NGOs.