Rights for the poor's knowledge

Published: Friday 15 April 1994

THE government's efforts to develop legislation to control access to the country's wild as well as cultivated biodiversity are indeed laudable: the ministry of agriculture has already prepared a bill to control the use of cultivated biodiversity and the ministry of environment and forests is working on a bill that will deal with wild biodiversity. Together, the two will form a powerful set of laws. They will have to be harmonised to ensure consistency in the management of biodiversity within the country. And, if managed well, these laws can become a model for other countries which, too, will sooner or later have to develop legislation in tune with international agreements.

The most critical -- and most complex -- issue to resolve is the rights of the people to their biological knowledge. Although the world provides patent protection to private and corporate knowledge, it does not endow any protection to community knowledge. It is now well known that it is the knowledge and efforts of the world's poor -- farmers, tribals, herbalists, rural women and fisherfolk -- which has given us this immense biological knowledge about flora and fauna. This biological information given to us by the world's poor -- like the Andean Indians who introduced potato to the world, the Amazonian Indians who supplied us rubber and the Indian herbalist who gave us sarpagandha, a herb used widely to develop anti-hypertension drugs -- has touched more people's lives than all the Toyotas, Hondas, Fords and IBMs put together.

It would be the height of unfairness -- when the value of this biological knowledge is being recognised worldwide -- if we do not formulate laws that give communities the protection that their knowledge deserves and the right to rewards in case that knowledge is used. Our report in this issue of Down To Earth reveals that although the ministry of environment and forests is favourably inclined to provide for such rights, the draft bill prepared by the ministry of agriculture does not. It allows a government designated agency to benefit, on behalf of Indian farmers, from earnings from germplasm exchange. This formulation -- which the Food and Agriculture Organisation also attempted with its Farmers' Rights resolution -- should be rejected outright. Traditional seeds represent the centuries-old, accumulated effort of rural farmers, especially women farmers, to identify and select good seeds. Therefore, any financial benefit resulting from the exchange of crop germplasm must go to them.

The key problem here is how to identify which community or communities should benefit from the use of basmati rice for new breeding practices. Indeed, this task is more daunting than impossible. Both the uses of wild biodiversity and domesticated biodiversity will have to be carefully documented, together with the information of the communities responsible for this knowledge. This documentation can definitely take place. And it should, in any case, as urgently as possible. With the erosion of tribal cultures and the spread of high yielding varieties, village biological knowledge is disappearing rapidly. Traditional knowledge is probably the most threatened common property system in the world today. Forests may not disappear soon but traditional knowledge, given the speed with which cultural erosion is taking place, will definitely vanish soon. This documentation -- just like the documentation in the patent office -- should be proof of a community or communities' ownership of a particular knowledge. If human beings can develop a modern, private knowledge-oriented patent system, surely they can develop a similar system that respects community knowledge. And just imagine what respect it will give to all the poor people of the world -- from the so-called Stone Age tribals of Papua New Guinea to the persecuted Amazonian Indians -- if this knowledge is documented. If it leads to legal battles between communities arguing for ownership over their knowledge...again, why not? All patent systems lead to furious legal battles. But these battles will tell the poor of their contribution to society, which has never been properly recognised.

In fact, the World Intellectual Property Organisation had started working on cultural property convention. Did the West Africans get anything for their musical rhythms that gave the West -- and now modern, liberal India -- its mod and pop music? It went only so far but the move was given up under pressure. But some strategies for developing a community knowledge protection system -- called counter-patents by anthropologist Darryl Posey -- can be learnt from that effort. NGOs, village communities, universities, colleges, everyone can be involved in a broad-based documentation effort. This will surely be the best educational effort, too. The ministry of agriculture must reformulate its draft bill.

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