Islands must hone traditional knowledge smarts

By Dev Nadkarni

The Pacific Island Forum Secretariat has recently issued an update on the Action Plan on Traditional Knowledge Implementation, which is based on mandates of Forum Trade Ministers and the Forum Leaders’ directives that are set out in the Pacific Plan endorsed in 2005.

The secretariat is working closely with several other partner organisations with in depth domain knowledge of the subject such as Trade Com, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP).

While the former two organisations are experts in the institutional and legal aspects of intellectual property, the latter are a treasure trove of statistical data, the region’s natural resources and information about the traditional, cultural and social mores of the Pacific peoples – a pioneering effort that has grown into a resource consulted by a range of organisations worldwide.

In certain ways it can be said that these two organisations are now a veritable repository of traditional knowledge of the people of the Pacific islands.

The concept of identifying, collecting, collating, classifying, assessing and storing traditional knowledge is comparatively new. Over the past few decades, the inevitable onslaught of modernisation, mechanisation and new methods of education has systematically marginalised centuries old traditions of passing important knowledge down the generations by word of mouth and emulation.

This has happened to the point of complete loss of knowledge systems from communities in indigenous societies. One oft quoted example is of an itinerant African tribe that has now lost the knowledge of sensing herds of boar in their vicinity by noticing a certain type of butterfly that generations of tribespeople had learned to associate with the impending arrival of the animals since the butterflies tended to precede the boars on their meandering paths.

The destruction of their habitat and the mushrooming of fast food joints in what was once forest has rendered that skill useless and present day tribespeople no longer have the knowledge nor the need to be on the lookout for that species of butterfly.

Some people advance the argument that what knowledge is not needed dies out in an evolutionary sense and there is no value in protecting it. That certainly is not the case. Scientific interpretations of traditional knowledge could lead to great benefits.

In the case of the butterflies and the pigs, being able to identify the specific butterflies would have led modern day scientists to zero in on the pheromones and other cryptic biochemical signals that guide the butterflies to the pigs and the mechanisms involved in the association of the two that was exploited so well by generations of tribespeople – unfortunately lost forever.

The point is that no traditional knowledge is ever useless and all efforts must be toward preserving and storing it in an easily retrievable manner for posterity.

Closer to home here in the Pacific Islands, there have been continuing efforts to preserve the navigational knowledge of the ancient seafarers who found their way to specific bays and beaches in distant lands guided by stars, currents and several other environmental signals.

The fact is that they were able to replicate their routes endlessly in a manner that is today possible by modern navigational aids. It is important to retrieve, understand and catalogue this ancient knowledge.

Similarly, there are projects under way in other Pacific Island nations like Samoa and Papua New Guinea that are involved in collating knowledge of herbs that have been used traditionally for medicinal purposes down the generations. A number of indigenous communities around the world have been involved in similar projects, many of them recording on video the knowledge, experience and testimony of old community members, who, in certain instances, may be the very last to possess such traditional information.

As well as preservation for posterity, traditional knowledge can contribute handsomely to indigenous people’s economies, besides bringing recognition and respect from wider spheres for the knowledge that their unique environment and circumstances has shaped over the generations.

Western countries like New Zealand and Canada have institutionalised mechanisms to identify, copyright and leverage the intellectual property of traditional knowledge for the gain of indigenous communities.

The idea of Intellectual property (IP) as applied to traditional knowledge has begun to gain traction in recent years and is increasingly a part of the international discourse in formulating policy around leveraging traditional knowledge for the legitimate economic gain of communities that have developed the particular knowledge system in question.

Matters dealt range from agricultural practices, food, environmental conservation, biodiversity, health and medicine, societal structures and systems of traditional local governance besides traditional methods of economic sustenance.

The Pacific Island Forum’s Action Plan on Traditional Knowledge Implementation has similar goals efforts toward which must be greatly encouraged.

In the first instance, the Action Plan sets out to develop national systems of protection setting out new rights and obligations in traditional knowledge that will complement existing forms of protection for intellectual property.  Subsequently, it involves the development of cultural industries in the region through activities that promote the commercialisation of TK.

The region needs to exercise some caution here. Intellectual property in relation to traditional knowledge is turning out to be big business for multinational behemoths of the drugs and pharmaceutical industry as well as others. Needless to say, they are ably and aggressively represented by their intellectual property consultants backed by law firms continually sniffing out opportunities around the world.

This is where mechanisms for the defensive protection of traditional knowledge need to be put in place to ensure that intellectual property rights are not given to parties other than the customary traditional knowledge holders.

These measures have included the most recent amendments of the patent systems that are administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It is important for individual countries and communities to compile databases of their traditional knowledge as evidence to fight against potential claims to a patent by a foreign applicant.

As well as defensive protection, steps toward proactive protection must also be taken. Pacific Island countries must take a cue from nations elsewhere that have put in place legislation to take care of this.

The Forum’s exercise, which included a regional seminar in August, will hopefully provide comprehensive assistance to the governments of member nations so that they are not only well prepared to preserve their traditional knowledge but also leverage what is rightfully theirs to derive the maximum economic gain, without losing it unfairly to extraneous commercial forces.

First published in Islands Business, October 2010