In Australia, a look at "bioprospecting" and the knowledge of indigenous people

The search for new plant and animal substances with medicinal or other useful properties often deeply affects indigenous people.

SYDNEY, Australia – The D'harawal people, whose ancestral lands lie about a hour's drive south of this metropolitan hub, understood how to use 1,794 plants for medicinal purposes. So it seemed quite fitting that Sydney was the site of a major international conference on “bioprospecting” in April.

Bioprospecting is the search for new plant and animal substances with medicinal or other useful properties. By one estimate, more than 50 percent of the most used medicines were developed from natural sources.

But bioprospecting often deeply affects indigenous people, as a member of the D'harawal made clear in a speech here.

“To our people, the community was the most important thing,” said Francis Bodkin, an Aboriginal descendent, author, teacher, and traditional storyteller who cited the figure of 1,794 medicinal plants. “What community are we helping by giving away our knowledge — the community of shareholders?

“Plants can be used for good or ill,” Ms. Bodkin said. “If I give someone the knowledge, how do I know what they will do with it? I am responsible and so are the ancestors. We have to guard our knowledge. Our knowledge has not been lost…we cannot give the knowledge away until there are safeguards it will only be used for the good.”

Ms. Bodkin was among more than 150 participants, many of them indigenous, at a conference titled “Indigenous Knowledge and Bioprospecting,” held 21–24 April at Macquarie University.

Speakers came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The conference also brought together people from a variety of disciplines — law, history, science, economics and education — who shared their particular perspectives on this increasingly important issue.

Sponsored jointly by the Association for Bahá'í Studies and the University's Centre for Environmental Law and Department of Indigenous Studies, along with five other university departments and centers, the conference was called to mark the close of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Peoples and to contribute towards social and economic development and the protection of the environment.

Presenters included people of Aboriginal, Maori, Native American, and other indigenous backgrounds. Over 40 talks were presented over the 4-day program by speakers ranging from world experts in their field to grassroots health and legal workers and advocates.

Among the points discussed were the contribution of indigenous peoples' knowledge to the development of pharmaceuticals and herbal remedies; the importance of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples in the use of such knowledge; and impediments to protecting indigenous rights.

Quest for cures

Bioprospecting is increasing around the world in the search for cures for diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, and for the development of other products such as cosmetics. Conference participants, for example, reported on current research into the Australian “Prickly Fanflower” for its potential cancer-fighting properties, and on South African research into some 600 plants in the quest for a cure for malaria.

Efforts such as these hold the promise of enormous advances in world health. They also offer the potential for material benefits to the indigenous communities that are the repositories of botanical knowledge. However, there is the risk of indigenous communities being bypassed in the race for scientific and commercial progress, and of their traditional ways of life being irreparably damaged.

“Those parts of the globe with the greatest biodiversity are also those inhabited by indigenous peoples,” said Celerina Balucan of Lourdes College in the Philippines, noting that indigenous peoples constitute approximately four percent of the world's population.

“The relationship of these peoples to the land and its resources are paramount to their survival…their identity, culture, languages, philosophy of life, and spirituality are in a balanced relationship with all creation. Disturbance of the land for development activities threatens the survival and continuity of indigenous knowledge and biodiversity,” said Dr. Balucan.

The conference was opened by a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony, symbolizing purification. Participants were welcomed by a representative of the Darug people, on whose traditional lands the city of Sydney now stands. An indigenous member of the New South Wales Parliament, Linda Burney, gave the opening address in which she pointed out that the Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth — a precious gift to the world.

On the first evening of the conference, participants were treated to a feast of cultural performances: an Aboriginal dance troupe performed traditional dances to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo; renowned Native American educator and traditional flute-player Kevin Locke performed the intricate and difficult Hoop Dance; and Sydney's Bahá'í Cultural Group performed music and dance from the Pacific Islands.

Several speakers referred to the clash of cultures that exists between indigenous and dominant Western concepts of “ownership.” Aroha Mead, a Maori academic, said that most indigenous communities were founded on the principle of guardianship, not ownership. But modern states are now formulating laws relating to ownership over land, resources, species, all genetic properties, and traditional knowledge associated with these resources. Patents are being taken out on plants to such an extent that indigenous communities may no longer be able to use them, said Ms. Mead. It is very difficult for indigenous communities to fight companies and legal systems to prevent or revoke patents.

Ms. Mead said it is easy to misappropriate indigenous knowledge in the technological age. Cultural material provided for one purpose may end up being used for something quite different on the other side of the world — and there is no legal recourse available.

Anne Waters, a Native American philosopher, poet and lawyer, expressed the fear that bioresearch could result in disaster for indigenous peoples as their resources are co-opted, taken away, and made unavailable. Each species has a role to play in the balance of the environment that the human species needs for survival, said Dr. Waters. Disaster could play itself out through greed and arrogance.

International instruments

Henrietta Marrie, formerly of the UN Environment Programme Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, reported on recent developments in the global arena. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was adopted by the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in November 2001. Signed by 77 countries so far, the Treaty is regarded as a landmark, said Ms. Marrie, placing traditional and modern farmers on the same level, thus protecting indigenous knowledge as well as farmers' rights.

The Treaty is concerned with conservation, sustainability, and equitable distribution of benefits. Taken together with related provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, it provides another instrument through which local communities can pursue their rights to genetic resources and traditional knowledge at national and international levels, Ms. Marrie said.

An indigenous Australian herself, Ms. Marrie cited Australian bush food as an example of how an indigenous community could use its two precious assets — biodiversity and traditional knowledge — as a basis for economic development. An estimated 10,000 native plants can be used for food, and only a fraction of these are currently used by non-indigenous people. Sales of “bush tucker” were worth A$1.4 million in 1996 but are expected to grow to A$100 million. The bush tucker industry has the potential to replace the pastoral industry in outback Australia. However, she cautioned, indigenous value systems must be protected at the same time as communities benefit from their resources.

The legal context

Many speakers expressed concern that the current intellectual property regimes, with their basis in Western concepts of ownership and invention, are inadequate to justly protect and compensate indigenous peoples for their traditional knowledge. New creative solutions need to be found, they said, such as specially designed legal regimes.

Ikechi Maduka Mgbeoji, Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, said the Western patent regime was designed in a European context and is in many ways unsuitable to deal with the protection and recognition of indigenous knowledge.

“The patent system was designed for machines, not for biology,” said Dr. Mgbeoji. “Patents are not applicable to all cultures…the law protects the interests and worldview of those who participate in its making, and indigenous people have not been involved.” He also said that indigenous knowledge has not received enough attention because of sexism and gender disempowerment, as traditional knowledge is often the province of women.

Jerzy Koopman, from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, said that when traditional knowledge is widely held, or in the “public domain,” it is not possible to patent it because it no longer meets the legal requirement of novelty. Additionally, he said, a patent can only be issued when a new, industrially applicable product is brought into being. These and other barriers mean it is not possible to patent the majority of indigenous resources. Nevertheless, Mr. Koopman said, he has tracked down 600 patents where some kind of indigenous knowledge has been incorporated into the product. The largest holders of patents are not corporations, but universities, he added.

Yee Fen Lim, of Macquarie 's Department of Law, said that the financial incentives to exploit traditional knowledge are high. “In 1995, the estimated market value of pharmaceutical derivatives from indigenous peoples' traditional medicines was US$43 billion worldwide,” said Ms. Lim. “Many ancient herbal remedies…find their way into high-priced Western pharmaceuticals without the consent of, or compensation to, the people who have used them for generations.”

Sonia Smallacombe, of Australia 's Charles Darwin University, said that legal language is sometimes inaccessible to many indigenous people. “Plain English versions need to be made of intellectual property and biodiversity legislation,” said Dr. Smallacombe, who is a member of the Maramanindji people in the Daly River region of the Northern Territory . “Local communities can understand technical concepts if it is explained to them.” While policies and declarations created in global arenas can have far-reaching effects, their outcomes need to be better disseminated locally so that indigenous people are more aware of their rights, she said.

The way forward

Chris Jones, one of the conference's organizers, said the event pointed out the need for new social, legal, and political relationships based on justice. “We are all part of one human family, while we recognize the value and beauty of diversity,” he said. “This perspective of ‘one family' needs to be applied to the issue of bioprospecting. While relationships between people are unequal, you cannot have a productive outcome.”

Among a range of solutions, Mr. Jones suggested the formation of regionally based, indigenous-owned pharmaceutical and herbal remedy companies as a means of overcoming inequality.

Several presenters gave accounts of projects that are currently being run in conjunction with Aboriginal communities. In Titjikala in Central Australia, the Plants for People Program aims to document and protect traditional knowledge about plants of cultural significance. The information is recorded on an electronic database to which access is restricted, to protect the intellectual property rights of community members. Professor Louis Evans of Curtin University in Western Australia pointed out the potential of traditional knowledge to develop plant-based enterprises to generate employment and wealth. She explained that not only is the existing patent system problematic for protecting indigenous knowledge, but royalty payments by themselves do not generate employment.

In Western Australia, the Kimberley College of TAFE is working with Aboriginal businesses to cultivate the “gubinge” or wild plum, which is believed to contain the highest level of Vitamin C of any fruit in the world. Macquarie University is working with Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley and New South Wales to record and preserve indigenous botanical knowledge while protecting Aboriginal intellectual property. Access to indigenous foods could reduce health problems such as diabetes, which are adversely affecting Aboriginal people.

During the conference, an important workshop was held to launch a twelve-month project to revise university ethics guidelines relating to biodiversity research and benefit sharing with indigenous peoples. Macquarie University has committed A$90,000 to this project, which supports the aims of the conference.

The conference program closed with a performance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancing, in which the audience was invited to participate. The conference brought together a variety of disciplines, and the participants benefited by hearing different perspectives on this multi-faceted issue. The atmosphere of the gathering was characterized by friendliness and a genuine desire to advance the interests of indigenous peoples. The conference organizers plan to enable the relationships that were established to be maintained for the benefit of all.

by Jane McLachlan-Chew