Genesis of Eden

Genesis Home

Biological Prospecting

THE indigenous peoples of the world may soon turn away researchers who come to study how they use local plants and animals, or search for rare species on their lands. Their decision to impose a ban on such work follows many years of frustration in their struggle to establish the right to remain in their homelands and gain some compensation for exploitation of their traditional knowledge by others. The origin of the dispute lies in the growing interest of industrial nations in traditional techniques as a source of new drugs, insecticides, dyes, oils and foods. But in many countries with indigenous peoples, especially Africa and Latin America, governments have done little to protect the communities that are stewards of these resources. The governments often allege, sometimes with justification, that they have neither the technical capacity nor the finances to develop these resources. Sometimes, nations only use such excuses to expropriate indigenous lands and resources. Indigenous peoples now articulate their anger. And against the odds, many have become effective spokespersons decrying the loss of community control over resources, the increased privatisation of common resources and erosion of biological and cultural diversity. Thanks to their campaigning, there has been considerable international recognition of their plight. For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognises that effective in situ conservation means strengthening and protecting "indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles". This implies that the governments of countries, which have done so much to annihilate their "primitives" and to destroy so-called "undeveloped" forests and ecosystems, will have to reverse such policies. The convention raises questions of access to biogenetic resources and traditional technologies, and the sharing of any benefits that accrue from their commercial use. Traditional technologies are now taken to include know-how (and some say, "do-how") of indigenous medicines, forest management, agriculture, watershed control, animal behaviour, soil fertility maintenance, ecological relationships and even knowledge of celestial movements. Unfortunately, laws on intellectual property rights (IPRs), such as patents, copyright and trade secrets, are inadequate to protect what the CBD calls the "knowledge, innovations and practices" of indigenous peoples-because of the lack of identifiable "inventors" and because they can't afford the services of patent lawyers. It seems unlikely that existing Western legal structures can ever be adapted to protect indigenous and local communities. Such traditional knowledge usually belongs to all, may not be ownable by any living person, or may even be the domain of ancestral spirits that speak for past and future generations. Under present law, once an indigenous community "shares" its knowledge or gives a valuable seed or medicine to a scientist, it effectively loses control of that resource forever. After more than a decade of meetings in the UN, the indigenous peoples have now developed a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Their first demand is that the "s" be kept on "peoples". This little letter implies that groups have rights to self-determination, that is, they want the right to deny access to anyone not respecting their languages, cultures and values. Nation states are vehemently opposed to such self-determination and insist on the words "indigenous populations"-implying that they have no collective or sovereign rights whatsoever. So although the draft declaration is now with the UN Commission on Human Rights and on its way to the General Assembly, it has little chance of passage. It is this sad state of affairs that has driven the indigenous peoples to deploy their most powerful weapon so far-the threatened moratorium on all research, collecting and bioprospecting on their lands and territories until adequate recognition and protection are provided. Perhaps this is not before time. Shouldn't scientific societies and research institutions be more proactive on behalf of indigenous rights? If they are not, they are likely to find field work far more difficult, more complicated, or impossible. In fact, these organisations are wellplaced to address some of the problems facing the indigenous peoples. For instance, increased recognition of indigenous peoples and their knowledge requires the development of alternative concepts of property, ownership and value. A recent workshop at the Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding, University of Oxford, proposed that IPRs be replaced by a system, driven by human rights, that serves to catalyse the needed dialogue between science, industry and indigenous and local communities. To implement this pro posal, work is under way at the Programme for Tradi tional Resource Rights an affiliate of the Oxford Cen tre for the Environment, Ethics and Society-to deve lop a system of traditional resource rights. The pro gramme, conducted in con junction with the Interna tional Society for Ethno biology and indigenous lawyers, is developing a model constitution and code of conduct. Governments are also being asked to "har monise" their environment, development and trade laws with internationally agreed human rights principles. Museums, research institutes and universities are in an excellent position to assist. Sizeable scientific collections and databases, strong interdisciplinary expertise and cross-cultural experience provide them with the resources necessary to spearhead the dialogue. Given that one of the time-honoured principles of these institutions-free exchange of information-is in jeopardy, this opportunity should be seized.

Darrell Posey is the director of the Programme for Traditional Resource Rights, Oxford Centre for the Environment Ethics and Society, Monsfield College, University of Oxford.

Return to Genesis of Eden?