Protecting community rights over traditional knowledge

Article, 14 April 2013

The current system of intellectual property rights is designed to promote commercial and scientific innovation. It offers little scope for protecting the knowledge rights of indigenous peoples, traditional farmers and healers, whose survival requires collective — not exclusive — access to new knowledge and innovations.

Woman farming rice in Kalimpong, Eastern Himalaya, India. In traditional Lepcha and Limbu communities, traditional knowledge is very closely linked to the biological resources found in the region and vice versa. Customary seed exchange, seed-networks and seed banks help protect their traditional knowledge and resources against permanent loss. Photo: Ruchi Pant/Ecoserve

Many communities are facing increasing threats to their resource rights due to the spread of western intellectual property rights (IPRs), often through Free Trade Agreements. If IPRs are granted too easily they can confer rights over community resources to others and do not require consent or benefit-sharing when community resources are used. They can also limit the rights of farmers to use, sell or exchange a bio-resource, which can be a serious problem if your livelihood depends on it.

This action-research project, which ran from 2004 to 2009, developed tools to allow communities to maintain control over their knowledge and related bio-resources, helping them to take advantage of market opportunities and preventing them from being exploited and misappropriated.

Project objectives (Time frame: 2004 – 2009)

This project explored the customary laws and practices of indigenous and local communities to identify appropriate mechanisms to protect their resource rights and knowledge systems.

It involved participatory research at community level to strengthen local capacity and develop local tools for protecting traditional knowledge — including biocultural registers, biocultural community protocols and biocultural products.

It also informed policies on traditional knowledge and biodiversity at local, national and international levels, and developed the concept of collective biocultural heritage, which provided the common framework to link different studies on this theme in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru.

Main findings

The main findings are summarised in the following publications:

Traditional knowledge in context (July 2011); and

Protecting traditional knowledge from the grassroots up (June 2009).

Project donors

The project was funded by the International Development Research Centre (Canada), The Christensen Fund, DANIDA, Irish Aid, SIDA and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SwedBio).

Further information

To find out more about the concept of biocultural heritage, tools to protect it and research findings from the project, visit

See all the project research and publications, or find out more about project partners.

Traditional knowledge rights: Heritage on the Edge

This short film (16 min. 09 sec.) explores the status and threats to Bio-cultural Heritage, and the responses needed.