- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Agence France-Presse) — Indigenous people are trapped in a Catch-22 situation over the protection of their traditional knowledge about medicinal and other uses of plants, the United Nations University (UNU) said in a report last week.

The report urges changes to international law to eliminate what it calls “a modern absurdity” of forcing the holders of ancient secrets to disclose them publicly if they want to protect them.

To decide whether a new product seeking patent protection is novel or based upon traditional knowledge, officials require free access to indigenous secrets, said the report by the Tokyo-based UNU Institute of Advanced Studies.

Although several countries have inventoried traditional knowledge to prevent its commercial theft, some cultures keep such information tightly guarded, passing it from one generation to the next through codes of conduct and customary law.

The international rules are an affront to the culture and customs of many indigenous peoples and can lead to injustices, the report said.

It cited as an example a legal challenge to a patent over a rain-forest plant in which U.S. patent regulators refused to accept the oral evidence of an Amazon shaman about his people’s traditional knowledge of the plant’s healing properties.

“The challenge for the world community is to devise a process to prevent the piracy of traditional knowledge without jeopardizing the cultural integrity and ways of indigenous peoples,” said the report’s author, Brendan Tobin.

He recommended allowing oral evidence of traditional knowledge, establishing means for such evidence to be given confidentially and providing for restricted access to confidential databases.

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