UN accused of shutting out indigenous groups


International Institute for Environment and Development

Date of publication: 
6 July 2009

UN agency ignores indigenous approach to knowledge protection

Communities the world over risk losing control over their traditional knowledge because a UN agency insists on using existing intellectual property standards for managing access to the information.

This is among the findings of the first detailed comparative study of customary approaches to protecting and sharing traditional knowledge and biological resources, published today (29 June) by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The findings come ahead of a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization that aims to develop rules for protecting rights over traditional knowledge, such as indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants, which conventional intellectual property laws do not cover.

“WIPO’s call for consistency with existing intellectual-property standards is a flawed approach as these have been created on Western commercial lines to limit access to inventions such as drugs developed by private companies,” says IIED’s Krystyna Swiderska who coordinated the research in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“This is a problem because traditional communities tend to protect knowledge and resources in entirely the opposite way, meaning that ideas and life-forms cannot be privatised and that access to them remains non-exclusive. This ensures access to knowledge held by others which is essential for survival in often harsh environments.”

The researchers warn that the loss of such customary approaches would lead to a loss of biological diversity and traditional knowledge and would limit the abilities of poor communities to adapt to climate change through, for instance, sharing climate-resilient plant varieties.

IIED and partner organisations in India, China, Panama, Peru and Kenya looked at what it would mean to protect traditional knowledge and associated genetic resources according to customary laws and practices and how to recognise this approach in law and policy.

The researchers identified key components that international policy on traditional knowledge and genetic resources should recognise. These include:

  • recognition of collective rights and decision-making;
  • means of sharing benefits equitably among communities;
  • recognition of customary rights over genetic resources such as crop varieties that communities have developed ;
  • enabling reciprocal access to genetic resources between users and communities; and
  • managing external access to traditional knowledge with community protocols.

They also stressed that ancestral rights to control knowledge cannot be extinguished, even if knowledge has been shared with others, because of its vital role in survival and identity.

“The UN Convention on Biological Diversity requires member countries to equitably share benefits from the use of genetic resources and related knowledge, and to protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices,” says Ruchi Pant of Ecoserve in India. “But nearly 20 years after the convention was created it still has no legally binding rules to manage access to biological resources and traditional knowledge, and to govern how the benefits from their use are shared.“

Swiderska says the delay in setting up a legally binding regime to manage access to genetic resources, share the benefits from their use and protect traditional knowledge is accelerating the loss of biodiversity and the unfair commercial exploitation of knowledge and genetic resources long protected by traditional communities.

“Intellectual property rights have been developed to suit commercial interests, such as drug companies, plant breeders and biotechnology firms,” says Swiderska. “Holders of traditional knowledge, who tend to be poor and marginalised, also deserve tailored rights, which should be based on customary laws and developed closely with the knowledge holders.”

Alejandro Argumedo of Asociación Andes in Peru says that the best way to protect traditional knowledge is to also protect rights to ancestral territories, resources and culture. “This collective biocultural heritage is what must be protected to ensure that knowledge is not lost.” This is a key recommendation of the project.

IIED will publish the research findings online in a briefing paper and a series of case studies from India, China, Panama, Peru and Kenya on Monday 29 June.


This paper is based on participatory research with indigenous and local communities in areas of important biodiversity: Mijikenda and Maasai, Kenya; Quechua, Peru; Kuna and Embera-Wounaan, Panama; Lepchas and Limbus, E. Himalayas, India; Yanadi, Andhra Pradesh, India; Adhivasi, Chattisgarh, India; and Zhuang and Yao, Guangxi, SW China1.

The CBD requires Parties to “protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices” (article 10©).

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations. It is dedicated to developing a balanced and accessible international intellectual property (IP) system, which rewards creativity, stimulates innovation and contributes to economic development while safeguarding the public interest.

WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore meets on 29 June 29 to 3 July.