Designing a biocultural heritage labelling system: survey results

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16 January 2017

Our survey found broad support for a labelling scheme for biocultural heritage-based products. Now we need to get a pilot project off the ground.

The Potato Park’s Craft micro-enterprise group. Biocultural heritage indicators that are a guarantee of origin and authenticity have increased incomes and improved social cohesion at the Potato Park (Photo: Asociacion ANDES (Peru))

We know from our research that indigenous peoples play a key role in conserving both the traditional knowledge and genetic diversity that are crucial for strengthening resilience in the face of climate change. But this traditional knowledge and genetic diversity are disappearing fast.

That is why in August 2015, together with the non-governmental organisation ANDES (Peru), and the University of Leeds, IIED published a proposal for a new biocultural heritage indication labelling scheme that sought to add value to this biological and cultural diversity, providing indigenous producers around the world with a label for their products.

We designed an online survey and sought feedback as well as consulting indigenous communities and experts from many countries – including Peru, Argentina, Kenya, India, China, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. We got some great suggestions – many thanks to all who took part!

Biocultural heritage sustains global public goods 

Biocultural heritage denotes the deep historical, cultural and spiritual relationship between people, biodiversity and particular landscapes, guided by traditional knowledge and customary laws. It is essential to some 370 million indigenous peoples, and provides a source of unique products and services – such as healthy foods, crafts/textiles, eco-tourism – that can be used to generate revenue to sustain traditional lifestyles.

This biocultural heritage also sustains global public goods, with a rich genetic diversity of major food crops. For example, Quechua communities in the Potato Park in the high Andes, Peru, sustain about 650 different varieties of native potato, including varieties that tolerate high temperatures, frost and virus attacks, and wild relatives, which are evolving and co-evolving in response to climate change.

This landscape-based gene bank provides a safeguard for potato production in Peru and globally. 

How can labelling help?

People are often willing to pay a premium for high quality local products provided they carry a guarantee of origin and authenticity, and labelling can provide that guarantee. The informal trademark used in the Potato Park, for example, has increased incomes and improved social cohesion.

Formally registered geographical indications (GIs) and collective trademarks can also be used, providing protection for intellectual property rights and allowing producers to take legal action for unauthorised use or sale of their products. These could be used to protect biocultural products linked to particular territories, but the application process is bureaucratic and costly, and the rights provided by GIs are held by the state, not by producers.

Certification might also be burdensome, especially if producers have to follow detailed specifications for several products. Labelling may be more appropriate as it gives producers more responsibility for compliance, although it provides less firm guarantees for consumers. Which one would be more appropriate was a key question in our survey. 

Survey results

Almost everyone agreed that there was a need for a new biocultural heritage indication labelling scheme, that it should be easily accessible for indigenous peoples, and that it should seek to protect culture as well as biodiversity.

Quechua communities in the Andes suggested the label should apply to all products of the 'ayllu system' – consisting of wild and domesticated species, humans and the sacred, which must be in balance to achieve well-being. 

Many people highlighted the importance of indigenous peoples' participation in the management of the scheme, and the need for decentralised monitoring, for example through local monitoring committees. Early experience with the Maori Organics label in New Zealand indicates that a decentralised verification system, led by indigenous peoples, can generate positive economic, environmental and cultural outcomes. 

The importance of wide participation at local level was also highlighted to ensure conservation of biocultural diversity. But the need for some independent oversight was also recognised.

One respondent highlighted the need to balance easy access with rigour to prevent unauthorised use. Several agreed with the proposal for a trademark-protected label. This could be a collective trademark, owned by producer organisations who set the rules for using the mark, or a certification mark, owned by a separate organisation.

The latter would allow a trusted organisation to apply on behalf of communities, and the communities could still develop the rules through national representative committee.

Mijikenda communities in coastal Kenya stressed the need to minimise costs, which means labelling without trademark protection may be more appropriate, at least in the first instance. Management by national committees rather than an international organisation was also called for.

The way forward

A key question is how to finance the scheme. Many green or fair trade schemes are funded by companies wanting to improve their supply chains, but the indication would not involve companies as it would seek to promote direct sale by communities at local/national level to maximise benefit capture.  

Indigenous producers could be asked to pay a fee, but only once the scheme is up and running and generating revenue.

The next step will be to design a generic biocultural heritage indication 'logo' and pilot the scheme in different countries, tailoring it to the particular legal and political context, and to the needs of indigenous producers.

This will require seed funding – but the scheme would contribute to a range of international commitments to conserve genetic diversity and traditional knowledge, support climate change adaptation and end hunger, including the Sustainable Development Goals.

We'll keep you posted as the scheme moves ahead.

Krystyna Swiderska (krystyna.swiderska@iied.org) is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.

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