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     Many people working at a grassroots level feel the debate about protecting land, rights and resources is getting beyond them, especially when the talk turns to international conventions, national legislation and legalistic concepts. Here are some perspectives that bring the legal and ethical implications of ethnobiology down to earth, with practical suggestions for local communities, conservationists and researchers.   -GJM

Resources: Research Agreements

    ‘The technologies, expertise and changes in thinking resulting from biodiversity prospecting will likely far outweigh in importance the commercial revenues. What this means is that a great deal more attention must be paid to the R&D [research and development] phase of biodiversity prospecting relative to the commercial phase. Although the appropriate commercial relationships must be in place, a research relationship reflecting the best possible terms for local communities must be established long before commercialization.  

    Tropical country research institutes and conservation projects have long collaborated with outside scientists, and have relied heavily on their expertise to develop [a] research and knowledge base, and management plans for conserved areas. Tropical countries will continue to depend upon outside expertise, but increasingly this will be done on terms set by tropical country institutions. In order to set out these terms, research agreements must be put in place which clearly outline the responsibilities and expectations of each party. The point is not to burden researchers with unnecessary bureaucracy, or to tax research programmes to the point that they cannot function. Rather, it is to create a framework in which all research — whether academic or commercial — contributes in some way to conservation and development activities in the areas in which it takes place, and to transfer the power to determine the nature of these contributions from researchers to local communities, projects, research institutes or, in some cases, governments. These two elements form the basis of research agreements: control by local projects and communities over the nature of research projects, and the use of resulting information, whether commercial or academic (including the choice not to commercialize); and the contribution of research programmes to the management costs or needs of conserved areas, and the equitable return of benefits to local projects and communities from any commercial activity.  

    It is important for conservation and development projects to tackle the implementation of research agreements as a precursor to any biodiversity prospecting-related programme. The manner in which research is conducted within a conserved area creates a framework of community, project, or governmental control over resource use which is often carried over into commercial resource use. If communities or other interested parties are not consulted and do not have control over the manner in which academic research is conducted, then they are unlikely to have any say in the extension of this research into commercial areas, or any control over the indirect commercialization that often occurs through academic publications, databases and other forms of distribution common to “pure” research.’  

From: Laird, S.A. 1995. Fair Deals in the Search for New Natural Products. WWF Discussion Paper. WWF, Gland. One of a number of WWF Discussion Papers on biodiversity prospecting and intellectual property rights, this publication addresses the roles which WWF and other conservation organizations should play in the exploration of biodiversity for genetic and biochemical resources of commercial value. It is available in English and Spanish. Contact: WWF-International, Avenue du Mont Blanc, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland; Tel. +41.22.3649111, Fax +41.22.3645358.


Land: Salvaging Nature

    ‘Conservationists who worry that indigenous conservation systems will break down with the failure of belief systems may be focusing on the wrong risk. The main threats will come from the breakdown of community political systems, systems of land tenure and rights allocations. Certainly such systems cannot be divorced from the people’s beliefs and value systems but many societies, notably those in Africa, show a remarkable continuity in their political and land management systems after undergoing fundamental religious conversions.  

    These conclusions may likewise be relevant to progressive conservationists and community development specialists who have begun to step up their efforts to secure indigenous resource management systems in changed circumstances. These attempts have, in general, focused principally on technical innovations - agroforestry systems, non-timber forest product exploitation, etc. - or have focused on the documentation of indigenous knowledge systems. Their efforts would be better directed towards understanding the politics of community resource management ...  

    It is time that conservationists began to start their work in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples from the assumption that they are dealing with local people with legitimate rights to the ownership and control of their natural resources. The creation of protected areas may not be the most appropriate option in such circumstances, as in most cases indigenous ownership rights are denied by protected area legislation. However, there will be cases, especially in countries which do not respect indigenous tenure or traditions, where the creation of protected areas may offer the only legally available means of securing indigenous occupancy and use rights, if not ownership. 

    However, there is a risk that the pendulum could swing too sharply the other way, towards an assumption that once an area is under indigenous ownership and control the problem is solved and that all indigenous systems of land use are inherently sustainable. This is patently not the case. Indeed, many indigenous communities are fully aware of the fact that as pressure on their lands from outside intensifies and as their own economies and social organization change to accommodate their increasing involvement in the market economy, they need to elaborate new mechanisms to control and use their resources. Ecologists, social scientists, lawyers and development advisors may have relevant knowledge to contribute to such indigenous communities to help them achieve this transition. Their role, however, is to act as advisers to indigenous managers rather than as directors of indigenous ventures.  

    In Amazonia, for example, the practice of recruiting technical advisors to indigenous organizations already has a 20-year history and has led to some notable successes in securing lands against outside intrusions. They have had somewhat less success in promoting verifiably “sustainable” systems of resource management while generating a surplus for the market.’     

From: Colchester, M. 1994. Salvaging Nature: Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation. Discussion Paper DP55. UNRISD, Geneva and WWF, Gland. Part of a series of discussion papers that UNRISD began to produce in 1987, this provocative view of local people and protected areas covers a broad range of issues, ranging from the perspectives and desires of local communities to the history, politics, social impact and future of conservation. It is available in English and French. Contact: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland; Tel. +41.22.7988400 or 7985850, Fax +41.22.7400791.


Intellectual Property Rights:  Gifts From Our Creator

    ‘My community has become particularly interested in the issues of intellectual properties in the past three years after the establishment of a Zuni Community Seedbank and after recently published books written by non-Zunis described secret Zuni religious practices ...  

    The scholarly contributions to the discussion of intellectual property rights and indigenous knowledge (IK) are very useful ... and I sincerely hope the discussions will extend in all directions to communities and governments. In my community and in other indigenous communities, property issues are gaining attention. Because of these rapid changes I worry that the valuable words I hear or read in journals seem so far removed from the feelings people have in their villages. I wonder how I could explain to my family and fellow tribal members what these discussions are saying and what they mean. The translations alone would be difficult due to the esoteric nature of property law language.  

     Writing from the perspective of a tribal member, a practitioner of my religion and culture of land use, I always find discussions of intellectual property rights both encouraging and disappointing. I am encouraged that the rights of native peoples’ IK is reaching a higher profile albeit limited to academic and legal forums. I am equally disappointed in the increasing distance between native peoples’ voices and theorists and lawyers ...  

     However, indigenous people are changing as they always have and many marginalized people are developing and supporting their own human resources capable of interacting with outsiders. As we have seen, the problem of affiliating IK with western culture’s terms of ownership and protocols lies mainly in the antiseptic environment of western law which does not recognize indigenous terms of ownership. It is a challenging dilemma, but the problem is not insurmountable.  

    Protecting indigenous peoples’ cultures shouldn’t necessarily be an assumed obligation for social scientists or anthropologists either. What many native peoples agree on is protection of their culture in a context they can control and participate in. As indigenous societies have been stating repeatedly, what they need is empowerment and recognition on a par with western priorities and rules of conduct. What is lacking in the effort to involve indigenous peoples in the intellectual property rights dialogue is grassroots information and participation. We need to learn more about the issues and our options so we can decide the best course of action for our communities. We have our own people who have tremendous potential to represent us appropriately, who live in our villages and who can begin a dialogue within and outside our communities.  

    Our established systems of property need to be seen on equal terms as those assumed by plant geneticists, marketers and others of industrialized cultures. As indigenous groups learn to face problems with more self-determination and hopefully with more sovereignty, the potential exists for our people to negotiate paradigms among ourselves before we negotiate with the outside ... What I hope to see in a convention is an acceptance of indigenous ownership values ... I believe if we de-emphasize any culture’s terms of ownership we de-emphasize the entire concept of ownership for everyone.’ 

From: Enote, J. 1995. Intellectual properties and gifts from our creator. The Common Property Resource Digest 36:11-12. A quarterly published for the International Association for the Study of Common Property by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the CPR Digest presents a forum for discussion of theoretical and practical topics concerning common property resource management. Contact: Editor, CPR Digest, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 205 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511, USA; e-mail cprdiges@minerva.cis.yale.edu To contact the author: Jim Enote, Project Leader, Zuni Conservation Project, P.O. Box 339, Zuni, New Mexico 87327, USA;  e-mail jenote@aol.com


Biodiversity Prospecting:  An Effective Conservation Tool?

    ‘Biodiversity prospecting - the search for economically valuable genetic and chemical resources in nature - poses several critical questions for the conservation community. Most of these questions revolve around whether active exploration of these resources can and will be done in a sustainable and beneficial way. 

    Conservation is closely tied to the ownership, control, use and value of the habitat being conserved. Bioprospecting will result in conservation only if the people or institutions who own or control these environmental resources benefit from prospecting to the extent that they are willing to conserve rather than deplete these resources for other purposes. Hence, for bio-prospecting to be successful as a conservation mechanism, it will need to compete with other land uses such as agriculture and cattle grazing. Furthermore, simple compensation schemes for nature-extracts can, in certain cases, have a negative effect on conservation: if resources are subject to open access, monetary payments can result in unsustainable harvesting and a decline in biodiversity ... 

    For generations, local peoples have used their knowledge of plants and animals for curing ailments. The current interest of pharmaceutical companies in prospecting for pharmacologically active compounds can possibly both endanger and offer potential economic gain to indigenous peoples. The existence of an external demand for biodiversity implies gains to local users if economic rent can be obtained for the use of local environmental resources and the traditional knowledge provided about these resources. However, because of a lack of well-established legal rights to these resources, and because of prevailing cultural and political structures, commercial demand may be detrimental to local peoples. For instance, local knowledge of medicinal plants could be utilized for identifying natural extracts without appropriate compensation. 

    In general, systems of intellectual property rights (IPR) do not offer protection to traditional knowledge, nor is it clear that establishing IPR regimes is the solution. A plant or organism with medicinal properties may have been discovered by several different peoples in different parts of the world at different time periods, making it extremely difficult to establish and reward “rights” of discovery. Synthesis also complicates this process by creating compounds that are so far removed from the original extracts that royalties and rights are hard to claim. Furthermore, property rights over traditional knowledge may be inimical to certain cultures. 

    Prospecting could also result in local peoples losing future access to the resource in question. Many communities around the world are dependent on forest resources for a variety of purposes. These communities are likely to bear heavy costs if bio-prospecting results in the unsustainable harvesting of resources or in the introduction of strict conservation measures that restrict local access. 

    There is a real danger that future commercial gains from pharmaceutical developments may never trickle down to the community level. There is, invariably, a period of several years between the discovery of a nature-based compound and the development of commercially viable drugs based on the discovery. The lack of immediate returns makes it more difficult for local peoples, who represent a single element in a lengthy and complicated process, to secure any benefits. Thus, renewed interest in biological prospecting in the pharmaceutical industry could result in the further marginalization of local peoples in tropical countries.’ 

From: Shyamsundar, P. and G.K. Lanier. 1994. Biodiversity prospecting: an effective conservation tool? Tropical Biodiversity 2(3):441-446. Tropical Biodiversity, published by the Indonesian Foundation for the Advancement of Biological Sciences (IFABS), appears three times a year. It contains research articles, research notes and short communications on ecology, systematics, biodiversity conservation and related topics, with a geographical focus on Southeast Asia. Contact: Jatna Supriatna, Editor-in-Chief, Tropical Biodiversity, IFABS, Jl. Nusantara 174, Depok 16421 or P.O. Box 103, Depok 16401, Indonesia.


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