Indigenous peoples have been marred for centuries by the incredulous theft of knowledge they obtained, and even resources they use. The thieves are superior, more developed powers that jealously protect the rights to knowledge that is not rightfully theirs. They then refuse to recognize that the true ownership of such precious information belongs to Native Peoples. Indigenous knowledge is stolen without the slightest consideration to the powerful implications that it comes equipped with. The moral repercussions behind such an unethical system leads to loss of Native culture and sustainability and a shift from using Native knowledge and resources for social needs to profit generation. These problems are exacerbated by the use of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), and the situation has delved to the point where nations bypass indigenous consent and wrongfully patent their knowledge and resources.
Why Indigenous Knowledge Is So Important
Knowledge of the natural world is not limited to science. Peoples spanning across the world have developed, over many years, a set of culturally rich knowledge systems that have been a result of the environments that they live in. Indigenous knowledge revolves around the environment and is of a largely ecological type. It is also referred to, by the World Bank, as the “traditional knowledge of the uses of plants” and even “ethnobotany.”
These knowledge systems hold great importance to the culture and understandings of the people that they belong to and their interactions with their environment: in medicine and the fight against disease, in spiritual worldviews and religion, in agricultural productivity, and even in the struggle to cope with a dynamic environment. Indigenous knowledge also plays an essential role in the sustainable rehabilitation of rangelands, thus strengthening the rangelands’ natural capacity for resilience.
In recent years, indigenous knowledge has garnered attention as a valuable contributor to natural resource conservation as well. It has a dynamic, culture-specific context and is generally holistic in nature. As Jonathan Rouse in his 1999 article “Global Dissemination of Indigenous Knowledge” noted, it is sometimes labeled as “local” to emphasize its very localness because it is “embedded in its particular community, it is contextually bound” and “it requires a commitment to the local context.” The word ‘indigenous’ can also suggest that knowledge is “unique to a particular community or ethnic group.”
Indigenous knowledge rightfully belongs to the people who use it within the context of their local environment because survival was the intended purpose of this knowl- edge. When it is used in another setting however, this knowledge becomes a tool of exploitation.
Indigenes use this knowledge to survive in their environment and also to give life to their economy. As Marcia Elen DeGeer writes in her article, “Biopiracy: The Ap- propriation of Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Knowledge”, “even though Indigenes have been cultivating their crops for generations, these communities...have been consid- ered the public domain of anthropological study.” The natural assets that Indigenes have been using are now becoming assets of multinational corporations.
Profits and Permission
Biotech industry profits have soared over the past few years. The biotech industry has become a business that gains momentum from scoping out organic materials and chemical substances that can be developed into a commercial product. Many of those materials and compounds come from plant life within Indigenous environments.
Unfortunately, these biotech corporations are not consulting Indigenes before using their products for the betterment of humanity; they simply take them out of the equation and heinously exploit the plants and natural resources that these people have been using in a sustain- able manner for centuries. What is worse is that these corporations legally place their own control and rights over the resources that Indigenes have been using for survival.
The instrument these corporations use is a patent, commonly referred to as an IPR or Intellectual Property Right. A patent is a document granted by a government giving exclusive rights over a product to the inventor. The Natural Rights Theory of Patents argues that an inventor has a natural right to his or her invention and that society, represented by the state, has an obligation to recognize, protect, and enforce that right.
But the fact of the matter is that these corporations never did create the resource or cultivate the plant that they are placing exclusionary rights on. Instead they extract the elements of the plant’s genes and patent the active compounds. Corporations have been able to patent genes from plants and thus claim the plants for themselves in the process. But the most odious thing they do is to take the cultural knowledge of the plant and all that comes with it, knowledge that Indigenes have collected from centuries of observation and interaction with the environment, and call it their own.
Corporations and governments argue that natural resources such as oil, plants, and the like need to be extracted because it will benefit a country. Yet this is only part of the story, because the people living in those areas are greatly displaced. Some governments neglect their obligations to protect its inhabitants. This is especially true in Latin American countries such as Venezuela, where multinational oil titans disregard the native lands they are harming while extracting natural resources.
Prior consent is a basic human right included in in- ternational agreements such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 regarding Indigenous peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Prior consent is necessary because it showcases the rights Indigenes have to make choices regarding their own livelihood.
In Brazil, multinational corporations have already pat- ented more than half the known plant species. Indigenes have the right to object and express the fact that they do not want an activity that is going to contaminate the water they drink, leave noxious byproducts of mining, or destroy the lands on which they raise their children and crops, and domesticate their livestock.
Implications of Intellectual Property Rights
Intellectual Property Rights are the bane of the ex- istence of many Indigenous communities. Corporations monopolize a natural resource and governments give ex- clusionary rights to an entity that has never had any prior use of that resource nor has stepped foot into the environ- ment from which it is unjustly taking. Indigenes use these resources to satisfy the demands of their community, and if any such resource is taken away the community’s abil- ity to survive is compromised. Indeed today what is being done by corporations is hurting indigenous communities.
Environmentalist Vandana Shiva has classified two major restrictions of IPR. The first one emphasizes how IPR has privatized Indigenous knowledge. IPR excludes all kinds of information and innovations that take place in “intellectual commons” – in farm villages or forests. The second restriction is that IPR is only recognized when knowledge and innovation generate profits, not when they meet social needs. The knowledge must be “capable of industrial application.” Shiva highlights that this definition of IPR underscores the idea that profits are the only ends of creativity, and that social good is no longer recognized. If governing bodies abide by this law, then Indigenes will never see their knowledge protected against voracious corporations looking to misuse their resources.
The enormous impacts of patents and IPR, both in number and in intensity, can also lead to particularly ironic situations. The patented product can be sold at higher prices in countries where the patented product originated. Higher prices are a result of import taxes on patented products that, in actuality, came from within the borders of a country in which they are being sold at higher prices. Patents have limited and concentrated the control of world food products to a few corporations. The top five corporations in agricultural biotechnology accounted for 60 percent of global pesticide use, 23 percent of the commercial seed market, and nearly 100 percent of the transgenic seed market, according to an ActionAid study in 1999.
The Ultimate Consequence of “Mind” Theft
IPR becomes another name for intellectual theft and biopiracy when it denies Indigenes their right to use products of their own ingenuity. Of course, IPR revolves around the erroneous dogma that people are only creative if they “can make profits” and “guarantee them through IPR protection.” Biopiracy and IPR deliver multiple punishing blows at the same time: they allow for the theft of in- novation and creativity and establish patents on knowledge that is compulsory for the everyday survival of Indigenes.
Canadian activist Pat Mooney defined biopiracy as part of a counter attack strategy that developing coun- tries and Indigenous peoples are using against developed countries and corporations who accused them of “intel- lectual piracy.” Yet corporations hardly felt that they did anything wrong after obtaining Indigenous knowledge and natural resources and then using them in profit-generating schemes. On top of all that, these corporations refused to compensate Indigenous peoples for knowledge that they claimed to be their own.
Another irony lies in the corporations’ reaction to Indigenes using their own resources and knowledge to survive. Corporations assert, “the infringement of patents and copyrights constitutes intellectual piracy.” Failure to recognize and properly compensate Indigenes for products of their own knowledge is then also an infringement of rights. GRAIN coordinator Devlin Kuyek calls IPR “a means for controlling the market and extracting more profit from it.” Kuyek’s point is further bolstered by the fact that the word ‘patent’ necessitates that a substance can only be patented if it has an industrial application and has potential to generate profit.
The Path to Restoration
It is difficult to conceive a solution that ameliorates every party’s problems, as biopiracy and IPR are both widespread issues. Corporations argue that they own the rights to knowledge and resources indigenous peoples have spent centuries obtaining. Indigenous peoples argue that their human rights are being violated as corporations are wrongfully stripping them of their livelihood.
The first step to offsetting this imbalance is education. Some Indigenous peoples remain unaware of their rights. Thus, indigenous people must be sensitized to IPR and Western Corporate Patent Laws. Greater participation from Indigenes is necessary in fight- ing the issue of biopiracy. Once Indigenous communities understand the principles behind IPR and the differing perceptions of western corporations, they will be able to properly identify the issues limiting their people and act accordingly with respect to international law.
The second step is predicated on whether the first step was executed properly. Nothing is certain before Indigenous peoples understand what exactly is going on outside their communities. They must comprehend the laws, the dynamics of the world economy, and the reasons as to why they are in the situation they are in today.