Protect and survive: customary safeguards, traditional knowledge

Article, 09 November 2009

In thousands of rural communities from Bolivia to Bangladesh, traditional knowledge makes up the living core of culture. Bound up with local livelihoods and biodiversity, it forms a holistic system precisely tailored to local needs and environmental capacity. Its evolution over time and through shifting conditions ensures traditional practices are robust and adaptable to climate change.

Such treasured knowledge needs protection from outside interests eager to monopolise control over it. But intellectual property rights such as patents are commercially oriented and ignore collective rights. Forcing traditional societies to realign their practices according to such internationally imposed Western systems can ultimately destroy them.

The ‘customary’ laws already governing traditional knowledge, on the other hand, ensure it is used and maintained sustainably. Any new national and international mechanisms for protecting traditional rights need to be based on them. So IIED is revealing how customary laws and practices work through research with indigenous communities and local partners in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru.

Partners identify, plan and conduct research fitted to local contexts; IIED develops the overall approach, funding and other support, and helps disseminate findings to policymakers.

At community level, IIED and partners found people holding traditional knowledge can best protect it through tools rooted in strengthening community organisations and resource management systems. One such tool is collective rules for access to genetic resources and equitable sharing of benefits from them. In Panama, IIED backed indigenous organisation

Fundación Dobba Yala as it developed a protocol for researchers, and the ANDES Association in Peru in helping to forge an inter-community agreement among potato farmers.

A project with the Kenya-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology has influenced national policy documents on traditional knowledge, including position papers on the international access and benefit-sharing regime of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This project has also helped Panama’s indigenous Embera-Wounnan get legal recognition for their territory by the government — a first step on their road to autonomy.

Internationally, in the CBD, World Intellectual Property Organization and UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, IIED has also raised awareness of the importance of protecting biocultural heritage as a whole – community rights over traditional knowledge and associated crops, medicines and other genetic resources, landscapes, cultures and institutions.

Case study first printed in IIED's annual report, October 2009