Traditional Knowledge should not be ignored – IIED

Since a London institute has recognised this, probably…probably there would be some debate about recognising the importance of community knowledge.


‘Traditional knowledge should not be overlooked

New Delhi, June 29 (IANS) Communities the world over risk losing control over their traditional knowledge because a UN agency insists on using existing intellectual property standards for managing access to the information, a global research organisation has warned.

The London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has done a case-study of the Yanadi community of Chittoor and Nellore districts of Andhra Pradesh, and suggested immediate recognition for traditional knowledge, ahead of a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The study was based on participatory research with indigenous and local communities in areas of important biodiversity – including the Lepchas and Limbus in the eastern Himalayas, Yanadi in Andhra Pradesh, and the aivasi in Chattishgarh (besides in Kenya, Peru, Panama and China).

‘The Yanadis are recognized as a Scheduled Tribe under the Constitution of India. Through their reliance on forests they have developed extensive knowledge of bio-resources, medicinal and aromatic plants and wild foods – including unique remedies for snake bite, paralysis, skin diseases etc,’ said the IIED study, made available to the media Monday.

Yet, it charged, the Yanadis have been relocated to isolated hamlets away from the forests, where they are ‘marginalized, living as farm labourers, supplemented with minor NTFP (non-timber forest produce) collection.

IIED said, in a case study specifically released to the media, that the rich traditional knowledge of the tribe is ‘on the verge of extinction due to lack of recognition’.

It argued that the codified systems – Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani – in India have relatively more recognition and patronage.

But Yanadi traditional health knowledge is not recognized by policy makers and is branded as the ‘superstitious knowledge of illiterates, making the tribes afraid to come out openly asserting their expertise’.

Yanadi traditional health knowledge, in Andhra, is closely linked to availability of bioresources – medicinal plants, knowledge generation depending on a traditional lifestyle.

Says the study: ‘Medicinal knowledge is acquired and transmitted through rituals in sacred forests. Plants for specialized cures are harvested wild through special rituals and are believed that their cultivation will remove their potency.’

IIED’s study argues that maintenance of knowledge systems depends on access to sacred forest flora. Ceremonial visits are traditionally made to the forest to show respect to nature and ancestors, worship health goddesses and revere plants.

Under their community law and practices, forest bioresources are considered to be the common property of the community.

Yet, forest protection laws prevent free access to the tribes to collect herbs from the forest, while ‘the smugglers and multinational companies are let in freely to tap the rich bioresources’, says the IIED study.

The Scheduled Tribe Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006 ‘does not seem very useful and though notified is yet to come into force’, it adds.

‘Yanadi traditional knowledge is on the verge of extinction. The youth are not interested in learning it, and the status of elders is weakening due to the extension of government control,’ says the study.

The WIPO meet aims to develop rules for protecting rights over traditional knowledge, such as indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants, which conventional intellectual property laws do not cover.

‘WIPO’s call for consistency with existing intellectual-property standards is a flawed approach as these have been created on Western commercial lines to limit access to inventions such as drugs developed by private companies,’ said IIED’s Krystyna Swiderska who coordinated the research in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

IIED argued that this ‘is a problem’ because traditional communities tend to protect knowledge and resources in entirely the opposite way, meaning that ideas and life-forms cannot be privatised and that access to them remains non-exclusive.

It pointed out that this ensures access to knowledge held by others which is essential for survival in often harsh environments.

Researchers warned that the loss of such customary approaches would lead to a loss of biological diversity and traditional knowledge and ‘would limit the abilities of poor communities to adapt to climate change through, for instance, sharing climate-resilient plant varieties’.

Studying the situation in India, China, Panama, Peru and Kenya, the organisation argued for accepting some ‘key components’.

These included: recognising collective rights and decision-making; finding ways to share benefits equitably among communities; finding means to share benefits equitably among communities; recognise customary rights over genetic resources; enabling reciprocal access to genetic resources; and managing external access to traditional knowledge with community protocols.

‘The UN Convention on Biological Diversity requires member countries to equitably share benefits from the use of genetic resources and related knowledge, and to protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices,’ said Ruchi Pant of Ecoserve in India.

‘But nearly 20 years after the convention was created it still has no legally binding rules to manage access to biological resources and traditional knowledge, and to govern how the benefits from their use are shared.’

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