You can do something to protect (indigenous) communities against biopiracy

Thursday October 10, 2013

by Nickson Otieno (Kenya, GESA 2011 alumnus)

As a preamble, may I provide an update of myself since GESA 2011: I recently embarked on my PhD studies in agro-ecology at The University of Quebec in Canada, thanks in a very large part to my experience at GESA 2011. But that is for another blog entry.

In 2012, we were able to document the indigenous knowledge of the Isukha community of the Baluhya people of western Kenya about the plants of medicinal use in and around a forest that forms a cornerstone of their daily life. The community derives at least 60 % of their necessities from the Kakamega rainforest in the form of wood, grazing, water, traditional medicine, honey and some small game, though game are no longer permitted by forest authorities in Kenya. Kakamega is Kenya’s only true rainforest and has numerous plant species endemic to it, many of which have medicinal value. Over the past few years, the community’s knowledge about the indigenous medicines from the forest, formerly a closely guarded asset and possessed only by elderly people, has been experiencing “infiltration” by external commercial interests, driving demand at such a high rate that the community itself appears to be on the brink of losing its natural capital. These interests consist mainly of bio-prospectors, both national and international. Pharmaceutical products are obtained from the community and subsequently commercially produced or patented without any thought to acknowledge or share proceeds with the community.  How do these bio-prospectors obtain the information? From a few individual members of the community who may not have the interests of the whole community at heart, and only for a paltry sum in payment.

Today in Kenya, there are numerous drugs sold over-the-counter for ailments ranging from flu, aches, fever, insecticides or appetizers that are traceable to the Kakamega rainforest. But there is hardly any mention of this, or of the local community’s input in the value chain.

Nickson (2011) with his team conducting bird and ethnobotany surveys in the Kakamega rainforest, Kenya.

While I was working on my Master’s thesis research on birds in those forests a few years back, I was often amazed at the readiness with which elderly farmers would offer me advice on how to handle bruises, insect stings, stiff neck (after using a pair of binoculars to watch birds for 3 hours!), fatigue, fevers, or to handle myself after being drenched in torrential rain. This is not to mention their knowledge on birds and their ways. It is from this that I decided (together with my observation of the commercialization of their knowledge in Nairobi’s pharmacies) to systematically compile the communities’ vast knowledge on these natural remedies and ascribe the knowledge to them rather than to the corner-cutters of the city. I went back after two years and over a two month period, sat down for interviews and field visits with some elderly members of the community to systematically document this knowledge and compile it into a scientific paper. We finally got the paper published in an online medical journal called Faculty of 1000 Research. This is a free  and open access journal and the paper, which lists several species of medicinal plants used by the Isukha people of Kakamega, can be read or downloaded. The paper is co-authored by a representative of the community who was also a key informant in the ethnobotanical survey, and several copies of it in the national language Swahili (local language still not complete) have been deposited at the community resource centre.

How does this help, one might ask. While it is true that such publication might draw sharper attention of the prospectors to the forest and its plant bio-resources, it achieves the greater benefit for the whole community, of pre-empting commercial patenting. Under the rule of “prior art” in international law*, already recognized also by many individual countries, any previous knowledge bars patenting of any product for commercial use, and any commercial use of the product is essentially expected to both acknowledge and compensate original owners or “users” of the knowledge or product, ingredient, etc. The good news is that a scientific publication in a journal DOES qualify as prior knowledge, “prior art”!

Now, I do not know much about international or commercial law, or any law for that matter, but if we as the GESA community can play our small parts to protect and safeguard the natural capital, intellectual property or other interests of defenseless communities against parasitism from bio-prospecting/commercial interests, let us do so without hesitation. I gave the example of the Kenyan case, but obviously these are scenarios currently occurring in all parts of the world, especially in Asia, Africa and South America. But establishing prior art is the first step. I would be happiest if the next level is attained – that of mobilizing the pharmaceutical companies, in Kenya’s case, to share proceeds with the communities from where the raw material is obtained. This will be a daunting task but one has to start from somewhere. It is a mission I am seriously contemplating.   In short, thanks to legal tools like “prior art,” the noose around the necks of exploitative bio-pirates has began to tighten. Guys, quickly help communities publish their knowledge (be it traditional medicine, art, dance move, music, mode of dress, culinary recipe, name it) to safeguard against unfair patenting. One need not publish the exact location of a medicinal plant, for instance, nor the exact procedure or concoction of preparation.

Food for thoughtful reflection.

*For more on prior art. See also the description on Wikipedia.

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