Indigenous Knowledge for Sale

One of the most common ways in which the value of something is assessed is how much someone is prepared to pay for it. This is sometimes described as the Price-Value Bias, the more we pay for something the more we assume it’s actual value or worth. Indigenous peoples of course have operated on a quite different mindset for the majority of their history. Something’s worth would generally be assessed primarily in terms of its practical or symbolic benefits to the community. These are the means by which indigenous communities the world over have largely understood the value of the knowledge which has been part of their history, culture and identity from time immemorial. Unfortunately for them they are now having to negotiate the challenges which arise from having contact with a modern world in which some will happily sell that which is clearly not theirs. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), is trying to encourage the international community to create criminal statutes against making money from exploiting indigenous cultures and knowledge without permission and agreement. This raises at least two obvious TOK related questions. Firstly, who owns knowledge? Secondly, what particular value does indigenous knowledge have in the modern world?

The first question is largely an ethical question and one which is usually referred as an issue of copyrighting and patenting. This concept appears to have first emerged formally in England in the 18th century although it would be fair to say that informally most cultures have assumed a connection between the producer of knowledge and the value they put on their own work. The first known patent seems to have been granted in Venice in the late fifteenth century. Copyrighting and patents are the standard means of identifying the producer(s) of a particular piece of knowledge and grants them a set of rights. These rights are clearly defined and have usually a time limit attached to them. One of the key issues for indigenous peoples is that the knowledge which they have preserved belongs to their community but it does not easily fit the relatively modern concept of intellectual property. The knowledge they cherish and pass on is valued for reasons other than its potential for generating a monetary profit, they own it in the sense that it is a part of them and makes sense within a specific history and mythology. Its primary value is that it has enabled their ancestors to survive or thrive in a particular environment and it has given them a rich culture and identity. The idea of ‘selling’ the latter to the highest bidder I suspect is entirely alien to them and this makes it easy for them to be exploited. The idea of having an identifiable individual originator of this knowledge is also something they would struggle with, their knowledge has been produced over millennia and by countless people, it has been a primarily collective and communal effort . The unsustainable exploitation of natural resources is also an issue indigenous peoples find difficult given the near-universal concept they have of being owned by the land rather than having absolute rights over it.

We live in a world where new information is produced at an astonishing rate, what value can knowledge produced thousands of years ago by so-called ‘primitive’ peoples possibly have? Many of the issues connected with the exploitation of indigenous knowledge appear to us to be rather trivial and unimportant. For example, indigenous art, songs, designs, clothes etc…are the most common things to be bought and sold in many countries. They are valued for the sense of authenticity and exoticism they lend by the people who buy them. To many indigenous peoples, however, this may feel more like identity theft. These things are to them more than mere decoration or entertainment, they encapsulate a rich history, culture and are a direct connection with their ancestors. Non-indigenous people who buy these items will, generally, have no idea what they represent and will often not be aware of the potential offence they might cause. The modern world has also woken up to the potential value of traditional remedies and medicines inherited by indigenous peoples the world over. The trend for ‘natural’ medical treatments is one which has brought challenges to indigenous peoples for whom the local flora and fauna has always been a rich sources of remedies for a wide range of ailments. These, however, were always part of a holistic approach to well-being incorporating mythology and spirituality and not simply an over the counter quick fix.

In 2007 the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in an attempt to highlight the issues described above. The degree to which this act has managed to protect indigenous people from exploitation is a matter of conjecture but, whilst it is a start there is no doubt that ruthless individuals and corporations will not hesitate to continue to turn indigenous knowledge into profit at the latter’s expense. For many indigenous people, the exploitation of their ancient knowledge, resources and cultures is however simply the continuation of colonisation by other means.

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