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Digital Library to Protect Indigenous Knowledge

T.V. Padma - 10 January 2005 - Source: SciDev.Net

South Asian countries will create a digital library of the region's traditional knowledge and develop laws to prevent such knowledge being misappropriated through commercial patents. The plan was announced at a two-day workshop held in Delhi, India, last week by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Participants at the workshop have begun drawing up a technical framework for classifying the region's traditional knowledge and linking it to the international patent classification system.

The aim is to create a composite digital library comprising individual Traditional Knowledge Digital Libraries (TKDL) from each country in South Asia. Accessible using the Internet, the library will contain information on traditional medicine, foodstuffs, architecture and culture. SAARC will fund the infrastructure required, and individual nations will fund the costs of training and work. The meeting's delegates said South Asian nations could use the digital library to fight contentious patent claims by proving the prior existence of knowledge, as well as promoting research on novel drugs, enhancing the region's share of the global herbal medicine market and helping set the international agenda on intellectual property rights.

The planned initiative follows the success of India's own TKDL, which will be used as a model by other South Asian nations.India created its library after fighting a successful but costly legal battle in 1999 to revoke a US patent for the use of turmeric to heal wounds — a property well known in India for generations. The Indian library contains information on 36,000 formulations used in Ayurveda — India's 5,000-year-old system of traditional medicine. The information - presented in English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese — was created in a format accessible by international patent offices to prevent the granting of inappropriate patents. 

The database set international standards for registries of traditional knowledge, which were adopted by the intergovernmental committee of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2003. In 2001, Indiadeveloped a system for classifying resources used in traditional knowledge that is similar to that used by the International Patent Classification (IPC). The IPC has agreed to include the Indian system in its own classification, which will be expanded to include about 200 sub-groups of drugs derived from Indian medicinal plants.

According to delegates at the Delhi meeting, this is likely to significantly aid patent offices searching the databases to ensure that proposed patents are truly novel and have not been reported before. Documenting traditional knowledge has become important as most of it is in the public domain and is easy to misappropriate, says Raghunath Mashelkar, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

India's National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) found that in 2000, almost 80 per cent of the 4,896 references to individual plant-based medicinal patents in the US Patents Office related to seven medicinal plants of Indian origin. In 2003, there were almost 15,000 patents on such medicines in the US, European and UKpatent offices' registries. However, according to the institute's director Virender Kumar Gupta, none of the 131 academic journals used by patent examiners when deciding whether to grant a patent is from developing countries such as Brazil, China or India.

South Asia possesses significant traditional knowledge that affects biotechnology, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and health care. More than 80 per cent of its 1.4 billion population have no access to modern health care services and medicine, and rely on traditional medicine, the Delhi meeting heard. The region shares a common heritage in traditional medicine —Bangladesh, India and Pakistan share the Unani system of medicine, whereas Ayurveda is used in India, the Maldives,Nepal and Sri Lanka. India's NISCAIR has prepared and circulated a practical guide for classification of traditional knowledge to other South Asian countries.

The Indian digital library of traditional knowledge has also attracted attention from other regions. Representatives fromSouth Africa, the Commonwealth West African Education Delegation, the African Regional Industrial Property Organization and International Property Office in Singaporehave discussed with India the possibility of creating similar databases.

The participants at the meeting, including staff of the SAARC Documentation Centre in Delhi, NISCAIR, and WIPO also discussed creating new laws to prevent misappropriation of traditional knowledge. Mikhail Makarov, deputy director at WIPO's technology retrieval systems service told SciDev.Net that WIPO is working towards a new legal instrument to protect traditional knowledge, using a combination of existing intellectual property laws and sui generis laws unique to individual circumstances of the countries developing them.Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Panama, Peru, the Philippines,Portugal, Thailand and the United States are among those that have adopted sui generis laws that protect some aspects of traditional knowledge. Regional organisations in the South Pacific and Africa are trying to define specific rights relating to traditional knowledge and strategies to protect them, said Shakeel Bhatti from WIPO's global intellectual property issues division.

Read previous article "Biopiracy fears cloud Indian database" by KS Jayaraman

Traditional Knowledge ‘In Peril’

Alex Kirby - 19 February 2004 - Source: BBC News

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.

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.

The report, from the university's Institute of Advanced Studies, says: "Obliging indigenous people to offer public documentation of traditional knowledge for intellectual property protection purposes is insensitive to centuries-old cultural practice in many places and may lead to injustice." It cites the example of a legal challenge to a patent over ayahuasca, a rainforest plant used in spiritual and cultural ceremonies. US patent regulators refused to accept the oral evidence of an Amazon shaman about his people's traditional knowledge of the plant's healing properties.

The report's author, Brendan Tobin, said: "The challenge for the world community is to devise a process to prevent the piracy of traditional knowledge without jeopardizing the cultural integrity and ways of indigenous peoples." The UN says the example of the Inuit may be helpful: they maintain a very high level of secrecy, but let government officials have confidential access to their traditional knowledge if they need it. It says international law should be amended to allow indigenous people to provide oral evidence of traditional knowledge. They should be able to give this confidentially, and access to confidential databases should be restricted.

The report says registers and databases developed and held by indigenous groups, museums, botanical gardens and universities are essential for protecting traditional knowledge. But they all need a common code of conduct, for example making explicit acceptance of the rights of indigenous peoples over their knowledge a pre-condition of access to the information. It also says companies should have to demonstrate prior informed consent as a condition for scientific or commercial use of the knowledge.

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Research Projects, Forums, Archives & Web Logs

  • Agroecological Knowledge Toolkit (AKT5) software was developed by the University of Wales, Bangor in conjunction with the Department of Artificial Intelligence at EdinburghUniversity. It was designed to provide an environment for knowledge acquisition in order to create knowledge bases from a range of sources.
  • Aujaqsuittuq is a web log and archive recording Inuit oral histories of how climate change is affecting their lives, environment and culture
  • The Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink (CAC) as its name implies, is a central link to a wide range of websites that either focus upon or shed light upon the Native peoples of theCaribbean and circum-Caribbean. The website endeavors to provide a venue of communication for these peoples and also offers a variety of research, including histories, news and articles about Native Caribbean peoples, educational resources, on-line surveys, and discussions of problems and prospects for Caribbean Amerindians and their descendants all over the world. It aims to provide content and build community at the same time
  • The Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS) and the Chief George Manuel Library are pleased to support and contribute to the development and maintenance of the World Wide Web Virtual Library.
  • Choike – A Portal on Southern Civil Societies is a project of the Third World Institute (Uruguay).
  • Coasts under Stress is a unique experiment in genuinely interdisciplinary research using a set of carefully-constructed complementary case studies on the East and West Coasts ofCanada to achieve an integrated analysis of the long- and short-term impacts of socio-environmental restructuring on the health of people, their communities and the environment. Research topics include The Acquisition of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Impact of Modern Technology on Traditional Knowledge Systems and the Environment.
  • Dialogue between Nations is an interactive global communications network hosting an ongoing educational forum for the self-representation of the world's 300 million Indigenous Peoples and their nations in relation to the goals of the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations International Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004)
  • Forests and Oceans for the Future is an ecological knowledge research project intended to help incorporate core community values and knowledge (aboriginal and non-aboriginal) in local sustainable forest and natural resource management. Selected bibliography and research papers published in the Canadian Journal of Native Education are available online.
  • International Center for Integrated Mountain Development(ICIMOD) Best Practices & Appropriate Technologies
  • The Indigenous Action Network is a forum for discussion promoting the rights, voices, and visions of indigenous peoples.
  • The Indigenous Knowledge (IK) Pages is a comprehensive resource offering up-to-date information, web links, and a monthly newsletter aimed at all those with an interest in linking global and indigenous knowledge.
  • The Indigenous People’s site will be comprised of four themes: (1) Indigenous Peoples: Fondo Indígena / Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), (2) Indigenous Rights: International Labor Organization (ILO-Central America) and Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH -Costa Rica), (3) Indigenous Health: University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Coast (URACCAN-Nicaragua), and (4) Indigenous Knowledge: Nuffic/Ciran and Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST).
  • Indigenous People’s Center for Documentation, Research and Information (doCip) offers the latest information on the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • Latin America Network Information Center (lanic) offers a comprehensive resource database on indigenous peoples inLatin America.
  • Lauravetlan – Information and Education Network of Indigenous People (Russia)
  • Native Americans and the Environment – Traditional Environmental Knowledge contains thousands of internet and published resources including a document archive and case studies section.
  • Native Web offers a resource database and discussion boards.
  • UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research
  • “Protecting Traditional Knowledge of Plants”