Bridging the Gap
Edited by Robert C. Bird, Daniel R. Cahoy and Jamie Darin Prenkert
Chapter 7: The human rights-related aspects of indigenous knowledge in the context of common law equitable doctrines and the Kiobel decision
The San people are indigenous hunter-gatherer groups from South Africa. They have used the Hoodia cactus plant along with traditional knowledge about the plant to suppress their appetite during long hunting expeditions. A South African research organization patented the molecule and then sold the commercialization rights to Pfizer for $21 million. The San people had no knowledge of the transaction and did not receive any benefit until international social action led to a modest benefit-sharing program many years later (Bratspies, 2007). A significant portion of the world’s biodiversity and genetic material exists within indigenous lands and a race is currently underway to exploit indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, land and resources (Bratspies, 2007). Access to these resources has been propertized under western intellectual property (IP) regimes to generate significant wealth. Under the current international IP law framework, however, indigenous knowledge is typically relegated to the commons and at its worst the system legitimizes the transfer of exclusive ownership of biological resources and traditional knowledge from indigenous peoples to western individuals and corporations without offering any recognition, reward or protection to indigenous communities (Bratspies, 2007). These practices have engendered a heated debate that draws parallels to past instances of neocolonialism and exploitation. As illustrated in the above example, corporations sometimes commercially exploit indigenous knowledge and in the process ignore the interests and rights of indigenous communities.
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