The loss of ancestral knowledge amongst indigenous peoples and peasant populations – of medicinal plants and animals, handicrafts, songs, agricultural practices, traditional law and decision-making amongst other things – is painfully visible and accelerating all over the world, mainly due to the rapid and asymetrical changes that colonization and neo-liberal globalisation have wrought.
At the same time, ancestral knowledge has over recent years increasingly become a topic of international interest and debate. Knowledge of medicinal plants, for example, is of potentially great economic value for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
Access to such knowledge is hence important for these companies, which means that without legal protection, ancestral knowledge is subject to illegitimate economic exploitation by third parties: pharmaceutical companies, to use the same example, can use indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants to produce new medicaments for a market that exists mainly in the USA and Europe, thus making (potentially big) profit from the wisdom of cultures who will not enjoy any economic, let alone social or political benefits from such commercialization.
Moreover, the current, globalized form of free market economy is increasingly dependent on a strong system of intellectual property rights undergirding its expansion. Ancestral knowledge however does not fit neatly into a system inherently built to protect the commercial interests of profit-oriented institutions and individuals. Ancestral knowledge is trans-generational, communally shared, often non-commercial in nature and purpose, and originates in the far away past. These characteristics conflict with the requirements for the granting of intellectual property rights.
Hence there is a heated debate taking place in many international fora – at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Bank – about how to best “protect” the intellectual “property” of indigenous peoples: their ancestral knowledge.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, indigenous ways of understanding the relationship between knowledge and the knowledge-holder (which might well not have anything to do with the dominant European concept of “property”), as well as the real needs of local communities, and the long-term consequences of ancestral knowledge and related biological resources (such as medicinal plants) are rarely discussed in those fora whose decisions might have serious future implications for the lives of many indigenous communities.
The issue is usually approached as an “economical problem” and “fair benefit sharing” (i.e. economic compensation) presented as ultimate solution. But is this the best way of understanding the issue? And might this generally accepted solution create problems instead of solving them?
It is no use trying to determine the situation of ancestral knowledge and making decisions about how to keep it alive and how to defend it from misappropriation in international fora far removed from and fundamentally uninterested in the lived reality of local communities. Even though the voices of some indigenous representatives are being heard in some of those fora, local communities are not only excluded from the decision-making process but most are also completely unaware of the issue in the first place.
Proposals for the protection of ancestral knowledge that have grown from the experience and deliberation of the knowledge holders themselves are urgently needed yet are few and far between. None such proposal exists in Ecuador.
We therefore propose the creation of a collaborative project of participative research and capacity building with a view to establish a network of organisations and individuals from the Ecuadorian Amazon which is able to:
1. investigate, evaluate, and monitor the situation of ancestral knowledge in the region (its character, importance, use, and distribution);
2. draw up an indigenous plan for the celebration and/or recuperation of ancestral knowledge in the region;
3. articulate an indigenous proposal for the protection of ancestral knowledge from misappropriation and misuse according to the shared cosmovisions of the Amazonian peoples;
4. participate in the debates regarding traditional knowledge on the international level;
5. continuously raise awareness of the issues on the local level through workshops, courses and other means of providing information.