Technology in the service of cultural diversity
STAR SCIENCE - Isidro C. Sia, M.D. (The Philippine Star) - February 14, 2013 - 12:00am

The Philippines is one of the richest countries in terms of cultural diversity. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples reports that we have 110 indigenous communities while the Summer Institute of Linguistics counts more than 170 ethno-linguistic groups in the country.

Each indigenous or local community possesses its own body of traditional knowledge and practices which have been developed throughout the ages and hopefully have been passed down to succeeding generations. This wealth of traditional knowledge and practices (which includes those which pertain to health, disease, and healing) may be considered as part of the nation’s patrimony.

The cultural wealth of the people is inextricably linked to the rich biodiversity of the ancestral lands. The communities, characteristically living in the mountains or their fringes, have depended mostly on plants and other natural products from the forest to prevent or treat sickness. The continued environmental degradation, for example, brought by rampant logging and mining, together with the onslaught of mainstream cultures, threaten the continued practice of the healing traditions of our indigenous peoples.

Thus, a systematic and comprehensive endeavor to assist indigenous and local communities in documenting and upholding their healing traditions may be valuable in confronting this situation. Previous documentation done is not enough to cover the breadth and depth of the immense body of Philippine traditional knowledge and practices in health. It is high time that such an effort is done. Four of our 170 languages are now extinct, and together with this, the loss of the culture of these four ethno-linguistic groups.

An initiative to document the healing traditions of our indigenous and local communities has been ongoing, with the collaboration of many institutions, notably the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the University of the Philippines Manila.

Documentation of the healing traditions has been done or is ongoing among many indigenous groups in the Cordillera, Sierra Madre, Palawan, Mindoro, Zamboanga and southeastern Mindanao. The output of the documentation is stored in a traditional knowledge digital library (TKDL) developed and maintained by UP Manila, together with the two above-mentioned institutions. The TKDL thus is a repository of the various cultural traditions of Philippine indigenous and local communities, that reflect the practices, knowledge, beliefs, and philosophy of what may be called “Philippine medicine.”

The documentation studies being carried out make use of community participation in the whole process of the activity. The methodology being used upholds the rights of the knowledge-owners as they are able to manage gathered data, and assert their right to free and prior informed consent, proper acknowledgement, and equitable sharing of benefits in the utilization of their knowledge.

In the acknowledgement of the communities’ rights to their knowledge, this national research program aims to carry out a community-based participatory approach, wherein the communities are actively and effectively involved in the documentation and protection of their cultural heritage in health. Their part is integral in defining the cultural appropriateness of the research: from assessing the project objectives, data-gathering methods and instruments, to deciding what information may be inputted in the digital library and what will be kept confidential.

The main component of the TKDL is the documentation of the plants and other natural products used by Filipinos, how these are prepared and used. Almost 12,000 entry items of the natural preparations being used by the different indigenous and local communities for different ailments have been inputted in the TKDL. The sources of information (e.g., names of healer-informants) are also given in the TKDL, to emphasize that they are the rightful knowledge-owners, and thus have the right to fair benefit-sharing should their knowledge result in some useful pharmaceutical product.

Information in the TKDL includes those with free access to the public and those which are classified and protected. The latter data may only be disclosed if there is prior informed consent from the traditional knowledge owner, which could be the community or a traditional healer, if the knowledge is uniquely his.

This national electronic database is a modern method of protecting our cultural heritage as old and new documentation on traditional knowledge in health is gathered and encoded into a digital format. Should traditional knowledge accessed in the TKDL be used for further scientific studies, the individual or agency will be linked to the knowledge-owner community to whom they should secure free and prior informed consent. Eventual product development shall call for discussions and agreements on appropriate access and equitable benefit-sharing.

The digital library also provides currently available information gathered from previous work by other researchers and scholars. Selected information from available literature on early ethno-botanical studies, mostly done by American and Filipino scholars, as well as traditional healing knowledge from old lexicographic and linguistic documentation of Spanish writers, are to be included.

The other components of the TKDL are a module on traditional practices and rituals which describes the practices on the recognition and management of ailments by the traditional healers; a module on Philippine traditional healers which is a compilation of the short life histories of the informant-healers; a module on herbarium description of plants which are not commonly seen in the lowlands; and a glossary of vernacular terms that refer to health, disease and healing.

Work has been done on about 20 ethno-linguistic groups; these have been supported mostly by PCHRD and PITAHC. As we have about 170 ethno-linguistic groups, much remains to be covered. For next year, PCHRD is supporting work on the documentation of the Ayta groups, the most marginalized of the Filipinos, and yet they have very rich traditions in healing practices.

To be able to cover the different ethno-linguistic groups across the country, partnerships with regional institutions have to be continued as what is now being done for example with the Western Mindanao State University in an ongoing study among the Subanen groups in the Zamboanga Peninsula.

The Documentation of Philippine Traditional Knowledge and Practices in Health and the Development of a Digital Library on Philippine Traditional Knowledge and Practices in Health were conceived in recognition of the wealth of traditional health knowledge held by our indigenous and local communities and in response to its loss due to numerous factors. The program aims not only to establish an inventory to preserve the country’s national patrimony but also seeks to uphold each individual and/or community’s right to the healing knowledge they and their forbearers have cultivated.

The program recognizes that communities’ wealth of knowledge in herbal medicine is essential in drug discovery and development, and in the realization of a national health care delivery system accessible to all Filipinos. However, the knowledge-owners, commonly from disadvantaged communities, should rightly benefit from the developments which would have not come about without their initial contribution. As asserted by the Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “…Indigenous Peoples are capable of managing their Traditional Knowledge themselves, but are willing to offer it to all humanity provided their fundamental rights to define and control this knowledge are protected.”

* * *

Dr. Isidro Sia is currently Professor 12 at the University of the Philippines Manila. He has served the university since 1985 as teacher, researcher, extension worker, and administrator. As a researcher, he has taken the less trodden fields of ethno-pharmacology and community pharmacology. He has conducted ethno-pharmacological documentation of more than 20 ethno-linguistic groups in the Cordillera region, Sierra Madre mountains, Mindoro, Palawan, and Davao. The documentation serves useful purpose of not only the written record of the healing traditions of the Philippine indigenous peoples but also as a source of study materials for potential medicinal agents and as a rallying point for advocacy of forest conservation. Culture-sensitive educational materials on health were prepared for some groups of indigenous peoples. Likewise, he has conducted community-based research to determine the efficacy, safety, and acceptability of medicinal plant preparations used in the community for common ailments such as scabies, skin fungal infection, and cough.

In addition, Dr. Sia has conducted several action-oriented researches on improving the use of medicine in the community and in the home. One of the published researches (“Parmakolohiya sa komunidad: Mga nakatagong gamot sa mga bahay sa Barangay Bungo, Gapan, Nueva Ecija, Acta Medica Philippina”), done with barangay health workers as research partners, was given the National Academy of Science and Technology Outstanding Publication Award in 1996. Outputs from this and other researches were used in the publication of several teaching materials on the proper use of medicine in the home and community.

Dr. Sia continues to be involved in the development of Philippine medicine as a researcher and the director of the Institute of Herbal Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, UP Manila. E-mail him at

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