Western pharmaceutical and agricultural businesses have long recognized that there is money to be made from the traditional knowledge of local, indigenous communities. Sociologists and anthropologists also seek to gain—intellectually and academically—from conducting research on and with these communities. What rules should govern the interaction with so-called traditional knowledge? How can intellectual property rights be designed so as to minimize harm to indigenous peoples and maximize the goods of research, and share it equitably?
Today on Public Ethics Radio, we examine questions of knowledge management, intellectual property rights, and research ethics through the lens of Australia’s Aboriginal groups. Our guest is the social anthropologist Sarah Holcombe. Dr. Holcombe is a research fellow at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University. Many of Dr. Holcombe’s writings are available on her website.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007. You can read the text and get background here. Australia, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand were the only no votes. Australia’s opposition under the John Howard government is described in this article in the Australian.
Sarah refers to a number of Aboriginal terms that will be unfamiliar to many listeners. I’ll attempt to document those here.
Tjukurpa: often rendered in English as “Dreamtime” or “Dreaming,” this complex term covers law, morality, religion, and specific knowledge (and oral enactments of knowledge) of those concepts among indigenous groups in Australia. Sarah uses it in the latter sense. The Australian government gives a brief introduction; or you can check out the Wikipedia article on Dreaming as a starting place.
Sarah mentions the famous neem tree. This tree is native to India, and has been in use locally for centuries. In the 1990s, the American company W.R. Grace patented the tree’s use as a pesticide. The patent was fiercely contested, and eventually revoked, on the grounds that the patent was inappropriately privatizing the prior knowledge extant in oral and folk traditions. Read up on it here and here.
A similar struggle is ongoing over hoodia, a cactus-like plant native to the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. Well known to the indigenous San Bushmen, the plant is now patented for use as a weight-loss product. 60 Minutes relates the tale.
Akudjura, or bush tomato.
Christian and Sarah both mention the notion of “benefit sharing.” This is a technical term within intellectual property law, referring to the (moral and legal) obligation to equitably share the benefits of biodiversity. Although the precise positive meaning is fiercely contested, the broad concept can be illustrated negatively. If a researcher patents a new medicine based on plants traditionally used an indigenous group, benefits would not be adequately shared if that group had neither access to that new medicine nor shared in the profits in any way. The governing law here is the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, though its provisions on benefit sharing are vague.
Sarah mentions the Northern Territory NRM Boards: NRM stands for Natural Resource Management. The project for them that Sarah mentions resulted in a report, “Guidelines for Indigenous Ecological Knowledge Management (including Archiving and Repatriation).”
Christian asks about the development of ethics protocols for researchers. These protocols are not publicly available, but listeners might be interested in the related community guide to ethics protocols for researchers, which are intended for the consumption of Aboriginal communities that may participate in researcher.
Acephalous societies are those that lack political hierarchies.
The Desert Knowledge CRC, or Cooperative Research Centre, is an Australian research center, which funds some of the research under discussion in this episode. Sarah was previously their Social Science Coordinator.
The International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics is available here.
The Land Rights Act is land reform legislation passed in the 1970s.
The Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs.
The Aranda people.
Details on the Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and its review (the “Hawke Review”), here.
Mutitjulu is an Aboriginal community located near Uluru in the Northern Territory. As recounted in the episode, the town is at the center of the issues that sparked the Northern Territory Intervention. The intervention is an ongoing federal program officially aimed at stopping child abuse. Started by the Howard government in 2007, it was continued in modified form under Kevin Rudd. Much has been written about Mutitjulu, but the initial controversial report was from the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline program.