Thursday, February 19, 2004

News Story: Intellectual Property, Folklore, Law

Traditional Knowledge 'In Peril'

Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 04:42 GMT
Traditional knowledge 'in peril'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
BBC News for the complete article.

Forest lore and knowledge passed down over generations by indigenous peoples is open for exploitation by anyone, the United Nations University believes.

It says a loophole in international law on intellectual property rights is an affront to traditional groups' culture.

As it stands, the law says indigenous peoples keen to protect their secrets have to put them in the public domain.

The UN researchers say the law amounts to a catch-22 trap, which allows the unscrupulous to exploit the knowledge.

They outline their concerns in a report, The Role Of Registers And Databases In The Protection Of Traditional Knowledge, which is being
launched at a meeting in Malaysia of the countries which support the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Culture clash

The knowledge the report covers includes commercially valuable understanding, developed over centuries of the medicinal and other uses of plants.

The problem arises when regulators from national patent offices have to decide whether a new product which a company wants to patent really is new, or is based on traditional knowledge.

To do this, they require free access to the knowledge itself. But in many indigenous cultures it is highly guarded.

The knowledge is often passed down from one generation to the next through codes of conduct and customary law, frequently including initiation rights before the information is divulged.