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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Protection of the Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples

  • Author(s): Gosart, Julia
  • Advisor(s): Gilliland, Anne
  • et al.

I examined the social content of the United Nations (UN) policies that aim at the protection of "traditional knowledge" (TK) of populations classified by international law as indigenous peoples. The UN category "traditional knowledge" embraces a wide range of products of the indigenous cultural and intellectual activities. I conjectured that while the TK policies were ostensibly aimed at protecting indigenous peoples from the misappropriation of these products, the major factor leading to creation of TK protection measures were the interests pursued by the third parties to benefit from indigenous intellectual resources. I examined the policies produced since 1992 by the UN agencies working on the issues of (1) economic development and conservation (CBD, UNEP, FAO, World Bank, UNCED, UNDP), and (2) protection of intangible heritage (WIPO, UNESCO, WGIP) to test my conjecture. I complemented this examination by a study of 100 conservation projects conducted on the territories of indigenous peoples (2002-2012). Informed by the archival theory perspective I learned that the TK protection measures focused significantly on a necessity to develop indigenous expertise as tools of sustainability/conservation. Despite the use of indigenous practices in conservation projects only certain indigenous groups benefitted from these projects, where most groups experienced negative consequences. The TK policy approach remained foreign to indigenous positioning on the TK protection issues: indigenous collective rights claims received little political recognition; currently proposed mechanisms of protection -"the prior informed consent" and "fair benefit sharing"- responded to the indigenous needs only partly.

Next I examined indigenous participation at the UN drawing on the sociology of knowledge perspective, and used the history of indigenous engagement with WIPO IGC (2001-2012) as a case study. Although the degree of indigenous political influence at IGC was low, the positive changes indigenous work produced in the positioning of the indigenous caucus at IGC could be considered unprecedented in the history of the UN agencies. I concluded that despite that the work on the TK protection can be considered to some extent as the step toward easing the access to indigenous forms of knowledge by interested parties, such as scholars and researchers working in the area of development and conservation (vs. address needs and interests of indigenous peoples), it had the unintended consequence of the growth of indigenous engagement in making these policies.

Substantively the study advances scholarly understanding (1) of the social context of the UN policy making and the significance of records as tools of institutional and political practices; and (2) of the forms of indigenous advocacy. Methodologically it complements research across sociological and archival studies of records and political settings. As a praxis-oriented endeavor it may contribute to more effective indigenous advocacy.

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