There’s a lot more at stake than didgeridoos

Man playing didgeridoo

Amio Cajander under a Creative Commons Licence

Amarina Smith looks at the lack of protection for indigenous traditional knowledge in Australia and beyond. 

The protection of intellectual property has become increasingly important in trade discussions in recent years. But the inclusion of indigenous traditional knowledge in this dialogue has been lacking.

Indigenous traditional knowledge has informed many scientific developments, particularly in the pharmaceutical field, as seen, for example, by the development of appetite suppressants from the San People’s knowledge of the hoodia gordonii plant in South Africa. Yet indigenous people rarely (if ever) benefit from the use of their knowledge systems – embedded in the cultural traditions of regional, indigenous, or local communities – in creating medicines, diet supplements and cosmetic products, which often create millions of dollars in revenue for the producers. This must change if we are ever to close the gap that exists between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples, particularly in the area of trade.

Indigenous Australians have generally been viewed, incorrectly, as one large cultural entity, and almost all indigenous government policies have been the result of a homogeneous view of what it means to be indigenous. In fact, there are approximately 400 different indigenous people groups in Australia, each with their own distinct language and dialect. Australia is not alone in its standardization of indigenous culture, however. Indigenous people groups worldwide have been the victims of cultural standardization. Canadian First Peoples, American Indians, and Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are all examples of indigenous peoples that have been lumped into categories that take little notice of, or ignore, the significant cultural differences between the numerous indigenous groups in those countries.

Perhaps the most obvious marker of this trend in Australia is the standardization of the didgeridoo. While this instrument has become synonymous with indigenous Australia as a whole, it is in fact traditionally recognized as belonging to the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, and in particular the Yolngu people. To them, the didgeridoo holds significant spiritual and cultural importance. However, the mass-production of the instrument in China, as well as the assignment of didgeridoos to mass tourism and marketing campaigns, in addition to many indigenous events, completely overlooks such significance.

It is this standardization of culture that hinders the involvement of indigenous peoples in wealth creation and generation, key things that needs to occur if long-lasting solutions to the significant inequalities experienced by indigenous people are to be found. In the past, government initiatives have often focused on providing funding and opportunities for employment within government agencies, but these have done little to support indigenous self-determination and entrepreneurship and instead have created a dependence on government, particularly in rural and remote indigenous communities.

In order for indigenous peoples to overcome the significant inequalities that currently exist, entrepreneurship and innovation must be encouraged and promoted. In light of this, the protection of indigenous traditional knowledge and cultural heritage should be a priority.

Several options for the protection of indigenous traditional knowledge as intellectual property exist. Benefit-sharing agreements, such as the one between the San People of South Africa and the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), are a potentially viable solution that allows the development of medicines and other pharmaceutical products, while still allowing indigenous economic benefit.

Benefit-sharing agreements are just that – agreements whereby indigenous peoples are given a share of the benefits that stem from the use of their traditional knowledge. Currently, Australian law dictates that reasonable benefit-sharing agreements must be negotiated where traditional knowledge is used, and that informed consent by the indigenous people must be given. However, these laws are only applicable when the knowledge used is biological in nature. They need to be expanded to include other areas of knowledge and culture.

Indigenous traditional knowledge is not the only area in which changes must be made to achieve equality, but it is indicative of the haphazard and homogeneous approach that has been taken towards indigenous issues and culture.

Amarina Smith is a student at Griffith University and is a Global Voices delegate to the recent WTO Public Forum in Geneva.