Global talks on intellectual property must not sideline indigenous communities

News, 27 November 2006

Governments meeting this week are being urged to take a new approach to intellectual property rights to reflect the needs, customs and views of indigenous communities in developing nations.

The International Institute for Environment and Development makes the recommendations in a report released today, ahead of an intergovernmental meeting at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) on 30 November-8 December in Geneva.

"Developing countries have to accept global intellectual property rights regimes that protect industrial inventions but do nothing to protect informal traditional knowledge," says the report's author Krystyna Swiderska. "This leads to the unfair appropriation of traditional knowledge and biological resources by Western corporations and scientists, with little sharing of any benefits that arise."

Under the current regime, patents can also prevent communities in developing countries from using and controlling their own traditional knowledge and the biological resources that are essential for their livelihoods. These include thousands of local crop varieties and traditional medicines.

Many governments are starting to address the issue of protecting traditional knowledge, but are doing so from this Western perspective, which grants rights to commercial inventions. This approach applies protection only to the intangible, intellectual, element of knowledge systems.

But for indigenous communities, the intangible and tangible — biological resources — cannot be separated. Such communities already have their own systems for sharing collectively held traditional knowledge and biological resources, designed to support their livelihoods, notes the report.

It calls for policies that move away from the dominant paradigms of 'access and benefit-sharing' and intellectual property rights, which reflect Western norms and laws, and towards a holistic approach based on customary laws, human rights and the protection of 'collective bio-cultural heritage'. This means protecting not only traditional knowledge, but also the associated biological resources, landscapes and cultures that ensure its continuation.

"Developing nations have been demanding a legally binding international regime to protect traditional knowledge since WIPO started working on the issue in 2001, but industrialised countries have consistently opposed this," says Swiderska.

The report was researched in collaboration with organisations in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru that work with local indigenous communities. It stresses that the livelihoods of indigenous communities worldwide and the conservation of biodiversity depend on the preservation and protection of traditional knowledge.

"Only with an international and legally binding regime can the misappropriation of traditional knowledge be stopped," says Ruchi Pant, a policy analyst with Ecoserve, which conducted research for the report in India. "The recognition of customary laws should form the basis of traditional knowledge protection systems at all levels, including in determining access to and rights over knowledge and biological resources, procedures for prior informed consent and equitable sharing of benefits."

Unless indigenous and local communities become central to the decision-making process, the policy response is unlikely to be relevant to their needs, and could do more to undermine their rights and knowledge systems than protect them, says the report.

"“WIPO is developing policies for the protection of traditional knowledge, but the participation of indigenous peoples in the process is very limited," says Swiderska. "These local voices need to be heard in the international negotiations that affect them."

"Traditional knowledge owes its existence to communities and to no-one else," she adds. "Decisions about its use should therefore be made by indigenous peoples, whose expertise is as important as that of intellectual property rights lawyers."

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Mike Shanahan
Press Officer
International Institute for Environment and Development
Tel: +44 (0)20 7872 7308
Fax: +44 (0)20 7388 2826

Krystyna Swiderska


The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see:

IIED’s project partners are: Asociación ANDES (Peru), Fundación Dobbo Yala and University of Panama (Panama), Ecoserve, the Centre for Indigenous Farming Systems, and the Herbal and Folklore Research Centre (India), the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy (China), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute and the Southern Environmental & Agricultural Policy Research Institute (Kenya).

They are working with indigenous and local communities in areas of important biodiversity (forests and centres of origin of rice, potatoes and maize): Quechua farmers in Peru; indigenous Adhivasis in Chattisgarh; Lepchas in the Eastern Himalayas; Yanadi tribals in Andhra Pradesh; Maasai and Mijikenda in Kenya; Kuna and Embera in Panama; and indigenous farmers in Guangxi, SW China.

’Collective Bio-Cultural Heritage’ is defined as the: “Knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities which are collectively held and inextricably linked to traditional resources and territories, local economies, the diversity of genes, varieties, species and ecosystems, cultural and spiritual values, and customary laws shaped within the socio-ecological context of communities.”

A number of international laws and policies already recognise the rights of indigenous and local communities to their traditional territories, resources, customary laws and self-determination.

The recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises indigenous peoples’ rights to fully own and control their cultural and intellectual property, their lands and territories and natural resources. It also recognises their right to full recognition of their laws and customs, free prior and informed consent, self-determination, and collective as well as individual rights.

The International Labour Organization Convention recognises the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples to their natural resources and territories and calls on governments to protect their social, economic and cultural rights, customs and institutions; to respect their customary laws and ensure their participation in decisions that affect them.

Information about the WIPO meeting is available online at: <>

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