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Indigenous Knowledge and Biodiversity: Global commons or regional heritage?

THE DEVELOPING WORLD IS home to the bulk of the world's genetic diversity and customary knowledge of plant uses. The developed world, with its growing sophistication in biochemistry, genetic engineering, and biotechnology, holds the means to develop such resources. With cultural and environmental change, however, both biodiversity and customary knowledge are being lost at an increasingly rapid rate. The race for this wealth of information has begun.

Ethnobiologists, economic botanists, and anthropologists work on the cusp of traditional and urban-industrial culture, recording indigenous knowledge accumulated over many generations, knowledge that is often the key to particular active ingredients within plants. In many cases, it can only be obtained from specialists (herbalists, diviners, beekeepers, master-fishermen) after the researcher has established credibility with the society and a position of trust with the specialist. But how far does this trust extend?

In general people with the richest customary knowledge have the least formal education. They also have the least bargaining power in urban-industrial society - particularly hunter-gatherers, whose traditional knowledge is disappearing most rapidly. Ethnobiologists and anthropologists play an essential role in preventing this tragedy, not only for its own sake but for its utilitarian value to a much wider sector of society as a key to new drugs, insecticides, and other industrial products. Researchers working with traditional specialists are not only in a relationship bulk on trust, they are also at the "sharp end" of urban-industrial society, gathering data and publishing it. Should a community's knowledge be made public freely or at a price? Many traditional healers in southern Africa feel that this knowledge should certainly not be available to the public; even within their own societies, much of this knowledge is kept private through ritual and taboo. Many traditional healers recognize the value of their knowledge and want part of the benefits arising from its use - and why not?


If a private company in our urban-industrial society accumulates unique and useful knowledge through trial and error, it patents that knowledge and receives a percentage of the profits from its use. For more than a century ethnobotanists have been recording customary knowledge, much of which relates to medicinal plants. Traditional knowledge, like industrial knowledge, has been accumulated by trial and error; but it has been made public with no patent rights attached. As workers trying to bridge cultures, ethnobiologists and anthropologists are in a position to act as brokers to facilitate a partnership agreement for the benefit of both rural communities and urban-industrial society.

What are the ethics behind recording customary knowledge and making it publicly available without adequate compensation? Surely this perpetuates the historical errors and attitudes that have characterized industrial society's exploitation of other more tangible resources from developing countries. With the growth of genetic engineering and biotechnology, ethnobiologists need to clarify their code of ethics. Encouragingly, this is already happening. The International Society for Ethnobiology (ISE), the Botanical Society of America (BSA), and the Society for Economic Botany (SEB) all have established ethics committees to develop professional codes (Boom 1990) - an important first step. But what strategies need to be adopted to put them into practice, and what pitfalls need to be avoided?


The question of rights to tropical-zone chemical or genetic resources is a controversial one, and the debate has grown more heated as biotechnology and genetic engineering become more prevalent (Mooney 1983). The conservation and social implications of this dilemma make a timely resolution on both issues essential. It has become widely recognized in international funding circles that innovative funding mechanisms will be required to support conservation, and that this support should come from those who benefit from biological resource use. A policy of treating both traditional knowledge and biological material as "free goods" discounts their value; this has important implications for any attempt to justify conservation as a form of land use through economic benefits in addition to aesthetic, religious, and other values.

The more complex a vegetation type in terms of species (or life-form) diversity (and this usually means those with the highest conservation value), the more complex, expensive, and labor-intensive it becomes to manage sustainable use of forest resources such as timber or "minor forest products." In most cases, conservation bodies in developing countries do not have the financial or human resources to carry this out. In instances where demand is high, then, "mining" rather than "managing" occurs, and the fine line between sustainable use and overexploitation is crossed. This negates the rationale behind "sustainable use" being a means for justifying conservation as a form of land use. The primary reason for maintaining core conservation areas is for long-term habitat and species diversity. We see results in Africa, Asia, and South America, particularly for commercially valuable products (whether timber, rattan, medicinal plants, or craftwork resources). The tropical zone countries, however, are rich in resources that have great value globally and can be harvested with low impact: genes, chemical compounds, and knowledge. The problem is that these resources are largely viewed by urban-industrial society as a "global commons" rather than as a regional resource.

This attitude, often unknowingly fostered by people from temperate-zone countries, thus "devalues" the resource that could best justify maintenance of species rich vegetation if financial value were placed on those resources. As Scholtz (1989) puts it with regard to the rosy periwinkle plant, the source of a drug used to treat childhood leukemia:

But why should Madagascar preserve the Rosy Periwinkle? The world community reaps benefits from this plant, but what are the benefits to the local people or to the Madagascan government? The answer is: none at all. No money flows back to Madagascar for the drugs produced, and it is unlikely that the drug itself is available to the poor peasants of Madagascar, should they need it. There is on the face of it no reason whatsoever for Madagascar to preserve the Rosy Periwinkle.


In the past, the sovereignty of renewable (timber, rattan, latex, etc.) and nonrenewable (bauxite and other minerals) tropical zone resources has been recognized (although prices paid for renewable resources may have borne no resemblance to replacement costs). Why not protect genes, chemical components of plants, and the knowledge that enables them to be collected and identified? The same applies to plants with horticultural potential, such as the US$30 million per year from the sale of African violets (Saintpaulia), which come from the Tanzanian forest (Lovett 1988); none of this money is linked to Tanzanian forest conservation.

If nothing is done, then an already politicized conservation issue will worsen, and we will all lose out. Internationally based researchers will be excluded from collecting either traditional knowledge or plant genetic material. Prolonged war, coupled with economic and ecological devastation in many African countries, will severely limit national capacity to record traditional knowledge or effectively conserve habitat or species diversity in a number of key areas. If neither in situ (in core conservation areas) not ex situ (in gene banks and botanical gardens) conservation can take place due to a ban on data or seed collection, then the result is a double tragedy where no one wins. We need a mechanism linking the recognition of the origin and value of these resources and a mechanism for "capturing" a portion of the profits arising from the use of these resources for local communities and habitat conservation in the tropical zone.


At present, what benefits do trickle down to traditional societies or regions when local traditional knowledge is used or when local plant resources are developed? If patent rights are secured, what form should benefits take and how should they be distributed? The answers to these key questions vary by country and therefore need to be resolved at a regional level using a broader ethical framework. Certain generalizations can be made, however.

First, in many of the tropical or subtropical countries concerned, the ration of MDs to total population is low, even in urban areas (e.g., one MD per 16,400 versus one traditional doctor per 110 in Benin City, Nigeria & Oyenye and Orubuloye 1983é). The traditional knowledge that leads to new pharmaceuticals often comes from people with the least formal education and from very remote areas, so there is certainly less access to modern pharmaceuticals, particularly in a barter economy. Certain modern pharmaceuticals can deal with ailments that traditional medicines can not; as Schultes (1988) points out, they are dispensed by mission doctors in certain areas. The constancy of these handouts undoubtedly varies. If a sustained primary health care scheme collaborated with traditional practitioners, the community would have the best of both worlds.

Second, surely it is worthwhile to consider the active direction of benefits from new drugs resulting from customary knowledge rather than to rely on the passive trickle-down of modern pharmaceuticals (some of the cake rather than the crumbs)? If 74 percent of the 110 known useful plant-derived drugs have a related use in traditional medicine (Farnsworth 1988) and the dollar value of prescription drugs sold in the United States containing active ingredients from higher plants totals $8 billion per year (Farnsworth and Soejarto 1985), then we are looking at a substantial financial resource - even at royalties of a fraction of one percent.

Finally, what attraction is there in this for pharmaceutical companies? For those relying on a chemical synthesis of drugs, none. For others, who see the potential for drug development from higher plants with the advances in phytochemistry, genetic engineering, and patent law, they see the opportunity to get ahead of competitors through supporting an equitable partnership between traditional herbalists and urban-industrial society. They would have quicker access to material for new drug development.


Labeling Sources

Active "capture" of benefits can take a wide variety of forms depending on local needs and the products involved. Simply recognizing the research input of traditional specialists through a note on a package can be an important - albeit nonmonetary - benefit. Wider recognition of the value of traditional knowledge would be particularly important in countries with racist attitudes and an emphasis on the "superiority" of urban-industrial society. The same would apply to industrial products developed from tropical-zone resources, as this could help highlights the need for conserving biological diversity.

Researchers as Advisors

By more formally recognizing traditional specialists as partners, researchers from a wide variety of fields can facilitate reciprocal arrangements in information flow. This already takes place when scientists provide copies of their reports to the communities with whom they have worked. Researchers can also serve as advisors in land-use conflicts, land-rights issues, or resource management problems. Chemists and pharmacologists could provide additional detailed information on toxic medicinal plants and their antidotes, and food chemists could give input on the nutritional values of wild food resources. In all cases, referral and information transfer channels need to be set up, and the extent and limits of the assistance need to be defined from the start.

Patents and Legal Contracts

The experience that patent lawyers have built in urban-industrial society certainly provides some useful examples. What need to be avoided, however, are legal wrangles from which only lawyers will benefit. The past five years have seen a great increase in patent rights applications relating to new drugs, plants, or organisms for industrial use (Crawford 1988). Discovering plant species that have useful active ingredients (such as those from traditional medicines, dyes, fish toxins, fungicides, and insecticides) is certainly an inventive, intellectual process. Even more so is the selection by trial and error of a few plant species for their synergistic effect from vegetation, which may contain hundreds of plant species. The same can apply to specific genes identified from key plant species, which may be used through genetic engineering techniques to produce a particular chemical.

While the ethical arguments behind the patent right debate may be clear cut, the same does not apply to strategies for capturing benefits; it is essential that false expectations not be raised. On the surface, for example, patenting seems to hold great promise. Again the vinca alkaloids from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle are a well-publicized recent example. The plant was discovered to have antitumor activity in 1958 (independent of any guidance from traditional medicine) and was patented and marketed by 1963. The sale of pharmaceuticals from this source totaled an approximate $100 million by 1985, 88 percent of which was profit for the company (Farnsworth 1988). This is a rare case, however. The average value and life of parents is considerably lower. For example, the average value of patent rights between 1951 and 1981 in Great Britain was only $7,000; in France, just over $6,000; and in Germany, $18,000. More than half the patents were canceled after eight years, and only 25 percent survived beyond 13 years.

Usually patents are applied only to material that has not yet been made publicly available. Published data culled from decades of ethnobiological research, however, have already been made public. The same would apply to genetic material of widespread plants, either as weeds, ornamentals, or corps. (The rosy periwinkle has spread throughout much of the tropical and subtropical world as a weed of disturbed areas.) Any claims to rights of published information or already widespread plant resources are a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, and are all the more reason why guidelines are developed to facilitate capturing benefits from newly recorded, unpublished information and natural resources not found under cultivation or dispersed as weeds.

Legal contract agreements, such as one developed by the National Cancer Institute, provide a very useful alternative mode; but again, any false expectations must be avoided. All groups involved in the research need to know that only a fraction of potentially valuable industrial products will reach the commercial market, since many are unsuitable (due to side effects of new drugs, for example).

Researchers as Brokers

An additional possibility for capturing benefits is by linking the legal approach to a "brokerage role" played by ethnobiologists - who bridge the gap between urban-industrial culture and traditional cultures - and university-based organic chemists and pharmacologists, forming a buffer between ethnobiologists and pharmaceutical companies. Ethnobiologists would provide plant samples for screening, but would maintain confidentiality through identifying the sample by code number only, combined with maceration of botanically identifiable material such as leaves, flowers, or fruits. Once a potentially important new ingredient is identified, these "brokers" can negotiate an agreement with a large company, enabling traditional healers (or other specialists) and ethnobotanists to determine the terms of the contract, not the pharmaceutical company.

"Green Consumerism"

A different approach, taken by Cultural Survival and other groups, is the concept of green consumerism. This could be applied to horticultural products such as the African violet as well as to industrial products, foods, and cosmetics. Companies marketing natural resources would hook up with the people harvesting them to facilitate better prices and therefore benefits to local communities and possibly to conservation.


Even if the problems surrounding the capture of benefits are circumvented, the problem of how to distribute and administer them remains. Anders (1989), for example, has documented the social problems among Alaskan peoples as money flowed into communities from oil and land revenues; it would be ironic and tragic if attempts to channel benefits to regions or communities ended up destroying those same communities. Misappropriation of funds has been a feature of many administrations, governmental and nongovernmental alike, and that would have to be guarded against, too.

Incomes from the capture of benefits are unlikely to accrue to a specific community, however (as plant uses are often known through much of the range of a plant species), unless a highly localized, endemic species is involved. Why not base regional funds on biogeographic or phytogeographic boundaries rather than on political ones? A regional fund, perhaps administered by an appropriate NGO through community leaders, would be one way; but the issue requires serious debate. Benefits could take the form of legal resources, primary health care, medicinal plant nurseries for overexploited or popular species, or educational bursaries.

In all cases, however, the position of developing countries in capturing some of these benefits would be greatly improved through access to the training, infrastructure, and technology for screening and developing new products. With few exceptions, Africa does not yet have this expertise; parts of Asia (India, for example) and South America (Brazil) are in a stronger position. The same applies to forming partnerships or legal expertise in developing countries because there is a similar imbalance of power. The majority of patents in developing countries, for example, are owned by foreign corporations - Germany, France, the United States, and Britain. In the short term, partnerships with organizations such as Lawyers for Human Rights need to be explored to improve local access to legal expertise relating to patents and contract agreements.

Clearly there is no single answer to this complex issue that encompasses all research areas or fields. Because patent rights to knowledge involve people, resources, and access to technology, the issue is inevitably politicized. It is essential that ethical guidelines and a strategy for developing equitable partnerships be developed as soon as possible. Encouraging examples such as the Kuna in Panama (the Kuna require researchers working on their land to pay fees, use a Kuna field representative, and provide copies of final reports to the community) already exist. The sooner pragmatic partnerships are developed, the better.


With almost 20 years experience in working with indigenous people to secure and protect their land and resource rights, Cultural Survival is well positioned to design and implement an intellectual property rights (IPR) project. We intend to move the question of indigenous rights to traditional knowledge toward some resolution in four ways: 1 By conducting legal research into IPR and native rights under US and international law. Our goal is to develop a legal model under which traditional knowledge can be secured. 2 By researching instances of misappropriation of indigenous knowledge to obtain drug patents. Again, legal test cases will be prepared from this research. 3 By developing mechanisms to protect IPR of indigenous people. Once these rights are established, they must continue to be protected - through joint ventures or partnerships, technology transfer agreements, royalties, licensing agreements, taxes on profits from patents based on traditional knowledge, contributions to an international fund administered by indigenous people, and an industry code of ethics. 4 By initiating communication between indigenous people and pharmaceutical companies and research institutes. Direct contact among these groups is the only way to ensure that the agreements mentioned above are implemented, and CS will work with all groups to present options.

Cultural Survival will not work alone in these efforts. We will coordinate research and activities with relevant human rights, environmental, and scientific organizations to further these goals.


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