Traditional Knowledge

and India's Fight against Bio Piracy

Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (ITK) according to WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) is knowledge, know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity.

Since traditional knowledge has ancient roots and is often oral – it is not protected by conventional intellectual property (IP) systems. Hence it is prone to misappropriation and misuse.

Western science dominates the world and brushes aside ITK as unscientific and unproven in order to push its agenda. But the world is changing fast, and the challenges are equally tough. So, we see that the very same Western scientific community turns to the wisdom of traditional knowledge when all other means to cope with crises and problems fail; because traditional knowledge is intuitive, holistic and qualitative.

Enter Predators of Biological Resources:

When there is wealth of traditional knowledge easily available can knowledge thieves be far behind? Bio piracy is defined as the stealing of biomedical knowledge from traditional and indigenous communities or individuals. Bio piracy occurs when researchers or institutions, frequently from wealthier nations, illegitimately obtain biological resources from less economically developed countries or marginalized communities. Many indigenous communities across the world have fallen victim to bio piracy. These predators do not stop at just stealing but go a step further and acquire a patent on the natural resource for profits.

Patents are offered to private companies or corporates and permit them to derive commercial profit from natural product. What does getting a patent mean: First, the farmer or community will no longer be able to use these products without paying royalties to the company that has a patent on it. Secondly, consumers will be deprived of cheap medicines and agricultural products.  Last, local communities should receive a share of the profits because the companies discovered the value of the species from locally available knowledge.

India’s Patent Wars:

India has been actively engaged in combating bio piracy, safeguarding its traditional knowledge and resources from exploitation. It has fought numerous battles to reclaim patents on indigenous products. Well known among these are the cases of neem, turmeric and basmati rice.

One of the first patent wars that India waged was for turmeric. For generations Indians have used turmeric for its healing properties. In 1995 US patent was granted to turmeric to two researchers. CSIR intervened to nullify these patents, spent $15,000 to fight the case, emphasizing the collective ownership of traditional knowledge about turmeric. The turmeric patent was withdrawn in 1997.

Neem, known for its medicinal properties, faced bio-patenting challenges in the US. However, India successfully revoked such patents through legal action, asserting its traditional knowledge and rights over this valuable resource. Patents for neem were granted in the early nineties. There was public outrage in the scientific community in India and legal procedures followed and the neem patent annulled in 2000.

Basmati rice, prized for its aroma and flavor, faced threats of patenting processes that aimed to monopolize its production. India contested these claims, asserting the collective knowledge and cultivation practices associated with this much-loved grain. The basmati patent was revoked in 2002.

Digitization of Traditional Knowledge:

Following these cases, Indian government took action on a war footing to protect its traditional knowledge base. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) project was initiated in in 2001 as an alliance between the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Ministry of Science and Technology and the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India.  A total of 418885 formulations including 119269 in Ayurveda, 236399 in Unani, 54689 in Siddha, 4151 in Yoga and 4377 in Sowa Rigpa have been transcribed so far into the TKDL database.  The National Biological Diversity Act was formulated in 2002 and the National Biodiversity Authority set up in 2003 has been pursuing efforts on People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) for formal recording and maintenance of comprehensive information on availability and knowledge of local biological resources, their medicinal or any other use.

International Initiative

In 2010 the world initiated the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS). It is a supplementary agreement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. It was adopted by 137 members of the United Nations and came into force in 2014. Its aim is to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Reiterating the Value of ITKs:

Indigenous communities have cultivated a profound understanding of their environments, fostering harmonious relationships with nature and maintaining ecological balance.

Traditional knowledge serves as a bridge between the past and the future, connecting present generations with their ancestors' wisdom. Preserving these traditions fosters cultural continuity and social cohesion. It empowers communities to celebrate their heritage and maintain their unique identity in an increasingly globalized world.

Moreover, traditional knowledge often holds solutions that are locally adapted and context-specific, offering insights that modern science may overlook. Integrating traditional practices with contemporary approaches can lead to innovative solutions in fields such as healthcare, agriculture and conservation.

To sum up, safeguarding traditional knowledge is not merely an act of preservation but a commitment to honoring the wisdom of our ancestors, fostering sustainable development, and embracing cultural diversity. It is an investment in our collective future, to ensure that the coming generations inherits a world enriched by the richness and depth of traditional wisdom.


More by :  Sujata C

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