2011 Guest Article: Setting the stage for new global knowledge, TK and TEEB

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Home » Resources » Publications » Articles » 2011 Guest Article: Setting the stage for new global knowledge, TK and TEEB

2011 Guest Article: Setting the stage for new global knowledge, TK and TEEB

Setting the stage for new global knowledge: traditional knowledge and 'The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity' at IUCN's World Conservation Congress

by Chad Monfreda (1)

Published online 1 August 2011
| Download entire article as pdf |


Global environmental knowledge underwrites the authority of international institutions charged with managing climate change, biodiversity loss and other looming environmental problems. Understanding how day-to-day practices create authority for these institutions is important because concrete practices offer opportunities to resist, affirm, or transform global environmental knowledge and the policies it supports. As part of an “event ethnography” conducted at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Barcelona in 2008, this essay looks in detail at one important site in a high-level international study on “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB). The WCC was a site where the TEEB organisers convened three fields of knowledge—economics, ecological and biodiversity sciences, and traditional knowledge—in an attempt to secure authority for the economic valuation of ecosystems and biodiversity. This paper focuses, in particular, on how the discourse on traditional knowledge contributed to the authority of TEEB, and how that authority carries with it certain political implications.An expanded version of this article was originally published in the Journal of Conservation & Society on 19 March 2011.

Contents: Introduction | Background | The IUCN World Conservation Congress | Building the Case for TEEB | Translating Indigenous Knowledge | Conclusions | Acknowledgements | Acronyms | References | Endnotes


We live in an era of growing global environmental governance. Carbon markets, biodiversity offsets, payments for ecosystem services, and a host of other programmes promise to regulate far-flung reaches of the global environment. Although these programmes cover a great many issues, they all legitimise themselves by laying claim to authoritative knowledge. How emerging forms of global governance come to manage the planet, and with what consequences, rests on their ability to secure a reputation for being both scientifically credible and politically legitimate.

The rapid growth in global knowledge—like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Assessment Reports on climate change, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report, and the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook—points towards a world where international decisions are increasingly justified in terms of expert rationality rather than political judgment. Whereas the dictates of the Cold War once directed the allocation of international funds, today funders frequently route funding decisions through the technical criteria of international institutions like the Global Environment Facility or The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Following its inception in 2002, The Global Fund, for instance, has USD 18.7 billion in approved performance-based funding, justified on a “transparent assessment of results against time-bound targets” (van Kerkhoff & Szlezák 2006; The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria 2010). Beyond decisions about international funding, the shifting landscape of global governance raises a host of other stakes as well, ranging from technological risk, to cultural identity, to the ranking of global environmental problems (Beck 1992; Taylor & Buttel 1992; Jasanoff 2003).

This essay describes how policy-relevant knowledge has been defined in “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) study. Begun in 2007 with support from Germany, the UK, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the European Commission, researchers, and business, the three-year TEEB study attempts to make a compelling economic case for conservation by producing highly visible, high-quality, peer-reviewed reports. Over the course of three years, TEEB has employed numerous strategies to gain recognition as an expert authority. The study has garnered worldwide attention in the global media, including the BBC, New York Times, Der Spiegel, the Taipei Times, and Financial Express of India. High-profile international meetings have also helped TEEB gain recognition, including the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the DIVERSITAS Open Science Conference in Cape Town.

IUCN’s World Conservation Congress (WCC), held in Barcelona in 2008, was one important site where TEEB spokespeople argued for TEEB as a policy-relevant form of global knowledge. Their arguments for TEEB’s rigor and relevance for policy-making marshaled the authority of three other areas of knowledge: economics, the sciences of ecology and conservation biology, and traditional knowledge. Each of these areas of knowledge were presented as valuable contributions to TEEB, yet these contributions were also highly selective; they were valued in different ways that had more to do with a particular way of framing policy-relevant knowledge than with any inherent merits of the three areas of knowledge themselves. This essay focuses on traditional knowledge in particular, and how it was framed in ways that built the case for the TEEB at the WCC.


Germany proposed the idea for a study on the “economic significance of the global loss of biological diversity” at the G8 Environment Ministers Meeting in Potsdam held from March 15-17, 2007 (G8 2007). The proposal appeared as the first of ten positions listed in the Potsdam Initiative, which G8+5 leaders subsequently endorsed at the Heiligendamm Summit held that June (TEEB 2008a). The European Commission, German Federal Ministry for the Environment, and the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs agreed to provide the majority of the funding for the TEEB study, to be headed by banker Pavan Sukhdev and a 15-member Advisory Board consisting of “high-ranking experts from policy, economics, and science” (TEEB 2008b).

As study leader, Pavan Sukhdev brings 25 years of experience, including 14 years at Deutsche Bank. He was also a founding member of the Green Indian States Trust (GIST), a green economic accounting project carried out between 2004 and 2008. Results from this project were provided to India’s Supreme Court and are credited with influencing legally mandated rates of forest compensation from development activities in India (TEEB 2008c). The TEEB Advisory Board includes prominent academic economists, most notably Lord Nicholas Stern, the esteemed author of the UK commissioned Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change, as well executives from the most prominent international environmental institutions, namely UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner, the CBD Executive Secretary Ahmed Djohghlaf, and IUCN’s Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre. The composition of the Advisory Board speaks to ties that are key to TEEB’s promotion and operation. It was due to Marton-Lefèvre’s personal request as IUCN Director General, for instance, that TEEB secured two prominent panelled sessions among the competitive and crowded schedule of the WCC. Although not an Advisory Board member, IUCN’s Chief Economist, Joshua Bishop, acts as TEEB’s Business and Enterprise Coordinator. Similarly, the CBD Secretariat works closely with the TEEB team, while UNEP serves as its official host.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress

IUCN, the world’s oldest and largest conservation network, convenes over 1,000 government and NGO members once every four years at the WCC to advocate, debate, and publicise global visions for the future. The largest congress to date gathered 8,000 attendees at the Centre de Convencions Internacional de Barcelona from 5-14 October 2008. The event unfolded in two stages: an open Forum of public presentations, workshops, roundtable discussions, art, and theatre, followed by a Members’ Assembly dealing with IUCN governance and devising high-level resolutions and recommendations. Taking place in one of the largest rooms at the conference, these presentations consisted of talks by invited panelists, followed by a question and answer session with a well-attended audience.

Building the case for TEEB

If TEEB is to make the case for a new kind of policy-relevant knowledge, it will need to secure credibility and legitimacy among funders and decision-makers by gaining the support of experts. The heavy weighting of economists on the Advisory Board, for instance, is one important means to build a reputation for economic rigor. Another tactic is the choice of Pavan Sukhdev as the charismatic study leader and astute broker able to span the roles of banker, businessman, and economic expert. The IUCN WCC was one major meeting where TEEB could promote its expert reputation. In doing so, TEEB at the WCC shows how public argumentation in produces a common discourse—or way of talking about policy issues—that draws its authority from different communities of knowledge.

This suggests that the ways that people are coming to understand and speak about TEEB is a settlement among multiple ways of knowing. Moreover, the settlement is neither the pure expression of any one set of ideas, nor does it leave the identity of the participants in the emergent settlement unaltered. The remainder of this essay demonstrates the power of language to frame debates over knowledge and policy certain ways and not others. The next section describes that process by showing how traditional knowledge claims were framed as either “scientific” or “political” during the TEEB sessions at the WCC.

Translating indigenous knowledge

Andrew Mitchell, Executive Director of Canopy Capital, described his company’s rationale for the economic valuation of ecosystems and biodiversity at the WCC TEEB session:

“The Amazon is a huge green machine. There are about four of them of that size around the planet: the Ghana Shield, the Congo Basin, and those of Southeast Asia…. Our idea was to look at these forests like a giant public utility, providing a service that we all use but we don’t pay for…. No one is going to give you a billion for butterflies or bears, but they might give you a billion for a forest and what it does for us.

Another panellist, Julian Mathews, founder of the travel company Discovery Initiatives, echoed Mitchell’s sentiment when he praised the idea that mountain gorillas “are now treated by the Ugandan government as oil fields".

It is unlikely that giant green machines and gorilla oil fields were in mind when an Inuit representative in the audience explained how nonsensical his Yukon community would find the economic valuation of nature. Rather than conceiving of nature as having an economic value that could be known independently from the act of knowing, he described the value of nature as being produced “very much in our knowledge and interactions with nature.”

Panellist Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson for the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, put the inseparability of nature and culture yet more bluntly:

“For a lot of indigenous peoples in the world the things that matter most to them are not just the economic value but, of course, the cultural and spiritual values of ecosystems and biodiversity. I think that we always talk about biodiversity side by side with cultural diversity because in our own life we cannot separate the two.”

Tauli-Corpuz later stressed that indigenous people have a world-view quite apart from the one of economics:

“I think that the point has been made over and over again by indigenous peoples that really valuing something in economic terms has a lot of limitations… Biodiversity loss is not just caused by the physical cutting of the forest but also the culture, the values, the mindset, the philosophies of people who are taking care of those forests. I think that we have to look at that mindframe and understand it better and see how it also can influence the policies that governments and businesses will come up with in the end.”

In response to Tauli-Corpuz, panellist Jochen Flasbarth, TEEB Adviser and Director General for Nature Conservation at the German Ministry for the Environment, agreed that in the future TEEB should do more to “capture knowledge of indigenous people.” Flasbarth’s reply acknowledged the relative lack of attention TEEB had given to traditional knowledge but did so in a way that depicted it as simply another biodiversity data point. Indeed, the sole reference in the TEEB Interim Report (TEEB 2008c) to traditional knowledge awkwardly positions it alongside the valuation of marine resources and genetic material, as an “under-researched” area that can service “gaps in the coverage of the valuation literature.”

Flasbarth also appeared to suggest that in invoking an indigenous critique of economic valuation Tauli-Corpuz was simply making the case that such tools were of limited value for indigenous people attempting to secure greater political rights. He stressed that economic knowledge was but one means among many to influence decision makers, and that it does not mean “that you are allowed to ignore indigenous peoples’ rights.” Seen in this light, arguments for political rights, like aesthetic or ethical ones, are thought of as additional tools in a toolbox of arguments, and can co-exist alongside TEEB’s economic arguments because economic valuation is simply “another, very important instrument that doesn’t say anything about the hierarchy of arguments or ethical, moral, or aesthetic concerns.”

Pavan Sukhdev offered a slightly different answer to Tauli-Corpuz’s call to talk about biodiversity and cultural diversity together, when he admitted that, “Cultural values and biodiversity values do go hand in hand. That’s probably mentioned in our first phase but in more detail should be explored in the second phase.” Here, cultural values appeared as one more group of benefits that nature provides people, alongside amenities like food, freshwater, and fertile soils.

Both Flasbarth and Sukhdev agreed with Tauli-Corpuz and the Inuit representative that traditional knowledge and cultural values deserve more attention, but, unlike the indigenous representative, maintained a clean separation between the two. Flasbarth spoke, on the one hand, of traditional knowledge as a resource to enhance the quality of TEEB’s biodiversity science and, on the other hand, the legitimate place for indigenous rights, while Sukhdev claimed to recognise that TEEB’s valuation exercise had not attended to the cultural value of biodiversity as closely as it should have.

Yet, do any of these three acknowledgements - of knowledge gaps, valuation gaps, and political rights - really address Tauli-Corpuz and the Inuit representative’s concerns? A close reading of their statements suggests that their concern with economic valuation is neither that it fails to appreciate the scientific merit of traditional knowledge, nor that it simply overlooks cultural values or political rights. Rather, both Tauli-Corpuz and the Inuit representative indicated that the translation of traditional knowledge into economic terms fails to appreciate that the ways in which indigenous people know the world are integral to the ways they live in it. As anthropologists like Paul Nadasdy argue, attempts to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with science tend to distill bits and pieces of the former’s lived-world into the graphs, numbers, tables, and theories of the latter (Nadasdy 1999). A major consequence of this so-called integration is to mine traditional knowledge for particular kernels of data, and thereby compartmentalise interwoven knowledge of place, narrative, history, and nature into the discrete bins, for example, of wolf population counts for wolf biologists or the medicinal properties of plants for botanists.

In the meantime, those aspects of traditional ways of knowing and living that do not conform to scientific understandings are either ignored or re-interpreted in a way that is consistent with the scientific or political registers they are made to speak. Thus, we see Flasbarth disaggregate traditional knowledge into scientific elements that can be “captured” but overlook Tauli-Corpuz’s claim that traditional knowledge goes beyond data about biodiversity to include knowledge about culture, values, and other drivers of habitat destruction.

If indigenous ways of knowing and living cannot be cleanly compartmentalised to fit the disciplines of science and economics, then attempts to translate traditional knowledge into those disciplines destroy something of the knowledge and life of which it is part. Writing in a volume commissioned to reflect on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), Peter Brosius recognises the dangers of binning indigenous voices into either the language of knowledge or rights:

“Whether our goals are purely instrumental (rendering local voices and local knowledge into forms that are useful in managerial terms) or emancipatory (rendering local voices into compelling narratives designed to secure rights) those local voices are situated in a subject position (Brosius 2006)."

Brosius argues for the liberation of local voices from what he calls a subject position by creating environmental assessments that solicit local knowledge holders for the same stamps of credibility, salience, and legitimacy typically sought through scientific review. In this scenario, global assessments would ask traditional knowledge holders for their views on the assessment’s political as well as scientific dimensions.

If local and indigenous people are not included in the production of global environmental knowledge on their own terms, there is the possibility that their inclusion will underwrite the authority of a project without their consent. Incentives for this result certainly exist, highlighted, for instance, through Flasbarth’s acknowledgement that legitimacy is a real concern for TEEB because the effort cannot be seen as a European Union or German project, nor an attempt by industrialised countries to gain control over developing countries’ biodiversity. Like the selective uptake of arguments from conservation scientists in a way that primarily secures scientific credibility for funders and decision-makers, the compartmentalisation of indigenous arguments into bins labelled “knowledge” or “politics” runs the risk of improving the standing of TEEB among scientists and policy-makers but alienating indigenous people themselves.


The TEEB sessions at the WCC illustrate how language plays an important role in building the case for a new economics of ecosystems and biodiversity. Although no single actor controlled the discourse, the play of arguments about the status of different kinds of knowledge reveal a subtle process by which actors select, frame, contest, and ignore arguments according to the identity of the speaker and the knowledge that the speaker represents. Moreover, the examples in this essay show one powerful way this occurs when different kinds of knowledge are defined as either “scientific” or “political”. The way this happened at the WCC supported TEEB’s goals to make the case for a certain kind of policy-relevant knowledge.

Of the three fields of knowledge under discussion —economics, the sciences of ecology and conservation biology, and traditional knowledge— TEEB representatives advocated most vigorously for economics as the study’s centrepiece and great policy contribution. To make a strong case for their vision of economics, TEEB representatives claimed the discipline’s robust and rigorous methodology for their own, while distancing themselves from what they described as mainstream the ethically pathological dominance of economics in decision-making. In this respect, TEEB’s economics became a dual epistemic and ethical resource. By contrast, scientists who contested both TEEB’s science and its politics only gained purchase with the former critique, as scientific credibility constitutes an essential element of TEEB’s epistemic authority. The third field, traditional knowledge, created a quite different response, with TEEB representatives placing knowledge claims made by indigenous representatives under a scientific or economic lens, or re-interpreting them in political terms.

In this sense, the WCC is a site of discursive production that, rather than adjudicating arguments in a neutral manner, re-articulated them in a way that enhances TEEB’s credibility and legitimacy among target audiences. The discourse thus emphasises the vision charted by TEEB advisers like Jochen Flasbarth, who highlighted the need to overcome suspicion among NGOs who see biodiversity as “much closer to God than to bankers”. Another adviser, Julia Marton-Lefèvre, similarly set the role of economics beyond dispute when she prognosticated: “The TEEB study will generate increased awareness in the economic significance of biodiversity loss, and will actually generate the action that we need to change the way the world is being run right now”.

Highlighting the privilege of economics in the discourse at the WCC is, of course, not to assume that the TEEB sessions were intended to be fully participatory, nor to indict TEEB’s economic vision. It instead shows that the process of building authority for global knowledge tends to re-articulate contradictory arguments in ways that may not be consistent with the intent of those who originally spoke them. To the extent that these re-articulations build support for a project that excludes those original judgments, the project risks turning reasoned disagreements into unbridgeable alienation, with negative consequences for both TEEB and the very communities that produce its credibility and legitimacy. Yet, other democratic models for constructing global knowledge that might avoid these pitfalls do exist. Indeed, they exist within the TEEB Advisory Board itself.

Panellist and TEEB Advisory Board member Joan Martinez-Alier endorsed an approach of epistemic pluralism. The ecological economist supported TEEB for tactical reasons but sparked spontaneous applause when he argued for an “orchestra of instruments”:

“Economic valuation is an instrument that some people understand very well, and it is very relevant, but we have a whole orchestra of instruments to talk about different valuations. Territorial rights, aesthetics, ecological sacredness for many people around the world, tribal people, are also very relevant values. There is an incommensurability of values that we have to recognise.”

To Martinez-Alier’s epistemic pluralism, TEEB's study leader, Pavan Sukhdev, remarked:

“Your inputs are vital and extremely well appreciated… The orchestra of instruments could well be something that we explore in TEEB II because there is space for that.”

What would an orchestra of instruments mean in practice? To find an answer to this difficult question, we might turn to recent experiments in the production and use of global environmental knowledge, such as the MA, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, and Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment. Such experiments are imagining new ways to secure credibility and legitimacy suited to the plurality of problems, places and peoples that so often threaten to divide and unsettle knowledge for environmental decision-making. A major innovation of the MA, for instance, was its emphasis on sub-global assessments tailored to particular knowledge and decision-making contexts that, through a common but relatively loose conceptual framework, provided an institutional mechanism for diverse cultures to “reason together” (Miller & Erickson 2006). Approaches of this sort that creatively reconcile the local and the global will be critical if the new economics of biodiversity and ecosystems is to successfully navigate the epistemic and political complexities of a rapidly globalising world (Jasanoff & Long Martello 2004; Long Martello 2004). Recognising the political dimensions of expertise in such a divided and uncertain world, the conservation community would do well to consider how these and related ideas could contribute to a truly new, robust and effective means to know and govern the global environment.


This research was made possible by the MacArthur Foundation through the project on Advancing Conservation in a Social Context (ACSC), and the National Science Foundation IGERT program in Urban Ecology at Arizona State University. The author also thanks all those involved in ACSC’s Collaborative Event Ethnography for their feedback and support.


ACSC: Advancing Conservation in a Social Context

CBD: Convention on Biological Diversity

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature

MA: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

NGO: Non-government organisation

TEEB: The Econmoics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity

UNDP: United Nations Development Programme

UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme

UNU: United Nations University

WCC: World Conservation Congress


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(1) Chad Monfreda, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, Arizona State University, USA. Email: chad.monfreda [at] asu.edu

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