Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property Rights

Vemedo J Kezo,
Department of Education St. Joseph’s College Jakhama  

Northeast India is one of the 25 mega biodiversity zones of the world. And within the Region Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have the richest biodiversity. Since time immemorial people of this region have used this traditional biodiversity based knowledge for their sustenance and survival in the form of food, fodder, and medicines for human beings and animals. They have thus built a whole knowledge system around the biodiversity.  

However, today it is being pirated by the pharmaceutical and other companies for their business products and profit. The communities that have developed this knowledge system get no benefit out of it and may even lose their right over it. Thus, the tribal communities of the region that have built their identity and culture around these systems are in danger of losing them. They are becoming the monopoly of the private firms and multinational companies (MNC). The Central and State governments have not taken adequate measures to safeguard our biodiversity and the traditional knowledge systems built around it.  

Tribal are not the only ones whose knowledge is being threatened. For instance companies in the US have patented some of the items which belong exclusively to in India- basmati rice, neem, and turmeric, to cite a few. However, most medicinal knowledge under attack belongs to the tribal communities. According to one estimate 50 to 60 percent of all medicines in the market were pirated from the tribal communities, analyzed in the laboratories of the pharmaceutical companies and then produced commercially. Some of the rare species that are found only in Nagaland are being taken unscrupulously to the open market for immediate gain. Once they are patented elsewhere this will become the exclusive right of those who have pirated them. Once it is pirated the law does not permit anyone else to produce or use it without getting permission of the patent holder to do so. The companies make high profits from them but the communities that developed this knowledge get nothing out of them. One is not certain that the State and Central governments are aware of the immensity of the threat to the tribal knowledge systems.  

The law has gone against the traditional knowledge system because the 1994 agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has put the traditional knowledge in the public domain. It means that any entrepreneur is free to exploit the traditional knowledge systems for his profit oriented activities and the community has no right over them. To be more precise, our knowledge of herbal medicines, handicrafts, handlooms which are unique to us can be owned by somebody else. With some modifications others can patent them elsewhere and we cannot use them nor produce them according to our own free will. In recent years the Government of India has enacted the Biodiversity Act and the Patents Act. But they protect more the interest of the pharmaceutical and other companies than those of the tribal communities. The indigenous knowledge system is going to be owned by some private firms who will fully exploit it for their own gains.  

Biodiversity also has high potential for research and tourism. Thus, the traditional knowledge system is endangered not only through private companies of MNCs but also through tourists, researchers and others. The inner line permit (INLP), has to some extent curbed the flow of tourists in the State. Tourism may be encouraged because of its possible contribution to the economy but has its own pitfalls. Some tourists come not only in search of exotic places with a peaceful ambience but also to steal the intellectual knowhow of the people. Once they go back home they develop it further and put their trade mark on it. Once it is done nobody can lay hands on such claims.  

Purely academic research is another means of taking away the traditional knowledge systems. Most researchers come with an open mind to learn and retrieve the data from the people and in the process have access to the knowledge of the indigenous biodiversity. However there are a few among them who exploit research for their own purposes. They get knowledge from the people and transfer it to the big companies and get a profit for themselves.  

Thus, the ironically is this; if adequate care is not taken we may have to get the permission of others to use and to produce the goods that belong to us and are essentially for our survival. The traditional knowledge of handicrafts and handlooms is part of the definition of who we are and what we are. They are part of our ethos of our social fabric. Can we allow such things to be owned by somebody else?  

Thus, it is essential to safeguard our traditional knowledge systems and biodiversity before they fall into the hands of the private players for their profit. Of late the North East Council (NEC) has taken certain initiatives to safeguard the handicrafts which are unique to the place and people of this Region. The NEC has come up with the plan of recognizing certain crafts as unique to each state as such they alone have a right over them. Hence we need to go beyond it and develop a mechanism whereby we document and analyze our traditional knowledge systems in order to tap our own resources for greater economic growth and self reliance. While documenting and analyzing the resources perhaps we can also develop a method of sharing them with others and at the same time benefiting from them. If we do not document our own resources and traditional knowledge system, others can easily take them away for their own purposes and claim to be their owners.  

With globalization traditional knowledge is at stage as popular culture is invading every fiber of our lives. The practical wisdom which is preserved and transferred through lore and legends are fading too. Therefore if we do not take appropriate measures and develop a system of preserving them and document them, certain knowledge system will vanish and our mega biodiversity will be taken and owned by somebody. Some much of indigenous herbal plans are in abundance but the neo generation are not following up and one day when we realize the importance of defining them, it will be too late.