Content Control: Patents Threaten Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous People

Quechua in Cusco region

“To have potatoes, there must be land, people to work it, a culture to support the people, Mother Earth and the mountain gods…”

By Stephen Leahy*

VIENNA, Jul 6 (Tierramérica)

Indigenous peoples risk losing control over their traditional knowledge if the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) insists on strict standards for managing access to information.

Patents and other forms of restricting access to knowledge are very worrisome in a time of climate change, says a new report by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The study was presented at meetings of the WIPO – a United Nations agency – held Jun. 23-Jul. 3 in Geneva.

Intellectual property standards restrict use of genetic resources when we need flexibility and adaptability to cope with climate change,” said Michel Pimbert, director of IIED’s Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Programme.

WIPO 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.

However, according to IIED’s Krystyna Swiderska, who coordinated the research in Africa, Asia and Latin America, “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.”

Intellectual property is about restricting access, creating monopolies and eliminating competition, and it is being pushed by transnational pharmaceutical and seed companies, said Pimbert.Quechua family in Cusco regionBiotechnology companies are using climate change and promises to develop drought-resistant and heat-tolerant crop varieties, but only if they get tough intellectual property protections, he added.

“Intellectual property standards are in conflict with flexibility and adaptability” necessary for the world to confront climate change, said Pimbert.

IIED report co-author Alejandro Argumedo, a plant scientist for the Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES) in Peru, believes that traditional communities protect knowledge and resources in precisely the opposite way.

Ideas, seeds and life forms cannot be privatised and access to them must remain non-exclusive and benefits widely shared, he said.

The Quechua communities in the Cuzco region of southern Peru have used their customary laws to manage more than 2,000 varieties of potatoes in what is considered the centre of origin of this important food crop, Argumedo told Tierramérica.

During the 1970s, many of those varieties were taken and stored at the International Potato Centre (CIP), located outside of Lima.

Meanwhile, government policies for modernising agriculture led to the widespread use of pesticides, fertilisers and new varieties in large monocultures, which resulted in the loss of many traditional potato varieties. potato park peru

To counter that trend, six communities formed the 10,000-hectare “Parque de la Papa” (Potato Park) and have “repatriated” 400 of their varieties stored at the CIP under a special agreement. Another 300 varieties will be planted in October, he said.

“The CIP understands that the intellectual property is in the community and that customary laws are important for the management of seed variety,” Argumedo said.

The communities developed their own agreement for sharing the benefits derived among themselves, based on traditional principles. Potatoes are more than food; they are a cultural symbol and important to all aspects of life for the Quechua, he said.

“To have potatoes, there must be land, people to work it, a culture to support the people, Mother Earth and the mountain gods,” Argumedo said.

Like many other indigenous peoples, the Kuna of Panama have developed their own protocol for access to traditional knowledge, based on customary norms.

A proposal from a researcher outside the community, for instance, has to be submitted to the Kuna general congress, discussed with the authorities of its 49 communities, and accepted by the community and traditional knowledge holders, the IIED report says.

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

“In the face of climate change, keeping diverse, resilient ecosystems is one of the strongest tools for adaptation,” said Argumedo.

“Indigenous peoples’ worldviews don’t have a place within WIPO,” he added


Thanks to the good folks who make it possible for these important issues to be covered through their support for the  Community Supported Environmental Journalism Fund which has now reached $1450.00, nearly 10 per cent of what’s needed for 2010.

There are some very important articles I’m hoping to write this year so help out if you can.

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(NOTE: For ocean lovers there is a major conference on Oceans this May –there are new prospects of international governance to hopefully end the ruthless rush to get the last fish. But will need $1000 to be able to get there)

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