Documentation & Protection of Indigenous Knowledge (IK)


Indigenous communities have shared a close and interdependent relationship with their surroundings since time immemorial. This symbiotic understanding, developed into a knowledge system which, when handed down from one generation to the next, came to be used in all aspects of life and enterprise ranging from human and animal health, home building, food and agriculture, textiles, handicrafts, to natural resources management and so on. This knowledge system is dynamic and interpenetrating and is known as Indigenous Knowledge (IK).

IK is a valuable and sophisticated system of knowledge developed collectively by adivasi (indigenous) and rural communities over generations, especially in older civilizations such as India.

The importance of IK can be understood when one realises that crops and plants as we know them today – for example rice, mustard, cotton or wheat—were not just found lying around in the forests millions of years ago, waiting for us to use them. Instead what was found in the forests were wild plants out of which men and women over generations bred races of several food and cash crops. They bred out of these wild plants of the forests, thousands of land races, which are the basis of today’s agriculture the world over.

In rearing the several thousand races of food and cash crops, farming communities have also identified valuable genes and traits in these crops and maintained them over generations through a highly sophisticated system of crossing and selection. They not only developed complex systems of pest management and biological control, they identified and managed a series of genes conferring valuable traits for commercial and domestic needs. Genes for traits as diverse as disease resistance, high salt tolerance, resistance to water logging and drought tolerance have been maintained in the repertoire of communities’ knowledge and know-how.

Along with these commercial traits, characteristics such as cooking time, taste, digestibility, milling and husking characteristics like how much grain breaks during milling operations are recognised and maintained. And in all this it has been women—the traditional custodians of the seed and responsible for its selection— who are the repositories of this knowledge and in the true sense owners of this complex seed technology.

The land races bred by farming communities are the foundation material of modern plant breeding and global food security. These land races are the self-same varieties that plant breeders today (agricultural scientists) use to breed other varieties and for which they seek special and exclusive privileges such as Plant Breeders’ Rights.

This work of genetic selection, maintenance and cross breeding is the result of innovative and creative scientific experimentation in the field and is no less than the scientific experimentation conducted by scientists in the experimental plots of agricultural research stations.

The importance of IK in healthcare: The use and application of IK has been central to the food and health security of rural and adivasi communities, it the basis of their income generation and livelihoods, and of survival itself.

Today, IK and the biodiversity associated with it has a growing global appeal to an environmental and holistic health conscious population, particularly in the industrialised nations. It has been realised that the combination of biodiversity and the IK to use it has the potential to provide significant inputs into economic sectors as diverse as agriculture, biofertlisers, biopesticides and pest control systems to pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, personal care and cosmetics, food additives, textile dyes, food colorants, industrial enzymes, handicrafts, etc. Also, the indigenous technology that IK systems use holds the key to long-term sustainable development because it relies on sustainable use of biodiversity.

Western science is looking at IK as a source of new drugs especially since the cost of putting new drugs on the market is becoming very high. And this is where rampant biopiracy is taking place.

The science of using natural resources like plants and animals, even insects, as well as minerals and metals to cure human and animal diseases, has been developed in several old civilisations. In India, there is a rich tradition encoded among Indian systems of medicine such as Siddha and Ayurveda.

Adivasi communities in India and indigenous communities of other lands too developed their own healing systems based on their knowledge of the flora and fauna amidst which they live. These traditions developed independently but have sometimes been influenced by the Indian systems as well.

Through the Indian System of Medicine (ISM) we know that there are a number of medicinal plants that can be utilised for curing physical ailments and diseases. Similarly, it can be seen that in the indigenous health system of the adivasi communities, there are several levels of health traditions. Their scope ranges from therapeutic understanding of the value of local food resources to the management of common ailments of humans and animals. It also includes ritualistic and superstitious beliefs.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), traditional medicine serves the health needs of almost 80% of people in the developing countries, where access to “modern” healthcare services and medicine is limited by economic and cultural reasons. For instance, the per capita consumption of traditional medicinal products in Malaysia is more than double that of modern pharmaceuticals.

The urgency of retaining and reviving local healing traditions has to be seen in the overall context of the unaffordability of allopathic drugs. This are being exacerbated many times over with the WTO regime and product patents on drugs being enforced. In the absence of even a rudimentary official healthcare system in most parts, reviving and strengthening traditional healing has become more important than ever.

In addition, today, the global market for herbal products—with its appeal ranging from pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and health foods to cosmetics, toiletries, food and textile dyes, colouring agents and ethnic products—is estimated to touch US $ 5 trillion by 2020. This turnover is largely based on the know-how of local and indigenous communities. It stands to reason that local communities must continue to use and nurture this knowledge and the bioresources associated with them, because through this IK will they be able to earn a rightful share in the benefits and receive a reasonable percentage of the profits that are today being made by commercialization of their know-how.

Challenges facing IK Protection:

Loss of IK due to loss of biodiversity: Biodiversity and associated IK are inextricably linked. The wealth of biodiversity in a region leads to the development of an extensive and complex system of IK based on the many properties of the various components of the flora and fauna contained in that biosphere. Usually, the richer the biodiversity, the more sophisticated the IK that evolves from it over time. Because of this interdependence, the physical destruction of biodiversity in the country has been inevitably been leading to the loss of the IK associated with it.

Loss of IK due to neglect of the knowledge and neglect of the communities that developed that knowledge: In India and South Asia, as on other developing countries, IK has lost its appeal, particularly among the youth. This has happened because official policies have failed to accord any value and prestige to the knowledge and its holders. In an attempt to ‘modernize’, developing countries have often chosen high-tech, expensive and unsustainable options, neglecting the solutions available in their indigenous systems. This has caused IK to be viewed as inferior to the so-called modern alternatives, and led to its devaluation. The decreasing respect for practitioners of IK, i.e traditional healers, cultural erosion and so called ‘modernization’, a lack of understanding of the sophistication and utility of the IK systems chiefly among policy makers, has led to a lack of a coherent protection and revival policy.

The absence of an explicit system at the national and international level, to accord legal protection to IK in the interest of the communities, is the greatest challenge facing rural and adivasi communities that are the repositories of vast and elaborate systems of IK.

The last seems to be the most outstanding problem. In recent years there is an increasing awareness about the loss of biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems across nations and national laws and international conventions have come into being in the past years with the aim of conserving biodiversity. While national governments have rushed to comply with TRIPS requirements for the recognition of formally generated knowledge with (often, draconian) IPR regimes, the legal protection of IK remains largely neglected.

Some efforts have been made at the national and international level in this respect, in the form of agreements, legislative and non-legislative efforts, but these have been largely ineffective, suffering as they do, from lack of serious intent and lack of an implementation framework. That this disregard for IK continues despite the burgeoning instances of biopiracy and illegitimate patents on products derived from indigenous knowledge, is a matter of grave concern.

Gene Campaign’s Position
There is an urgent social reason to promote and place far greater reliance on indigenous knowledge systems. As has been seen in the case of public health, the so-called modern health care system based on allopathy is unable to serve the basic health needs of majority of the people.

The Indian reality is that the modern health care system serves the needs of only about 30% of the rural population. Revitalisation of indigenous health systems based on locally available biological resources and local knowledge thus holds the promise of providing health security to millions of underprivileged Indians having little or no access to the basic health facilities.

But the healthcare skills and knowledge of traditional societies are under threat today. This is true of growing food, of healing, and of establishing a code for society. This loss has acquired critical proportions in the essential sectors of food and healthcare.

Genetic erosion in the field is threatening the long-term sustainability of food production and the loss of indigenous knowledge about healing traditions is taking away from local communities their trusted, affordable, holistic health care system.

According to the All India Coordinated Research Project on Ethno-botany, the indigenous communities are acquainted with the use of over 9000 species of plants. Specifically for the purpose of healing they know the use of some 7500 plant species, compared to the allopathic system of medicine which uses some 100 species. Even the formal Indian Systems of Medicine, Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani use only about 2000 species of plants in healing formulations.

Given that there is this tremendous knowledge base within the country, there is an urgent need not only to formally document this knowledge, but also to revive its use within the communities themselves since the younger generation does not show much faith or confidence in continuing the tradition of healing. Considered old fashioned in comparison to the smarter branding and higher value placed on allopathy, traditional healing systems are systematically being ignored by India’s official machinery and disregarded by a westward looking urban India. Folk medicine and all its healing treasures are in grave danger of being lost.

In the absence of a legal protection system, IK and gene-rich holding countries such as India find their IK and bioresources scavenged for R&D by developed countries without acknowledgment or payment.

There is need to overcome the wrongful bias that research conducted by scientists in white coats working in laboratories of universities is ‘Science’ where as the complex agricultural knowledge systems and practices of the rustic, rural communities is not, and therefore not worthy of protection, acknowledgement, or payment.

Need for IK to be protected: The central problem that confronts IK is the fact that despite being a body of knowledge generated by intellectual exercise, it is not recognised as the intellectual property of the communities that have generated this knowledge. The present status is that IK has not been granted the status of intellectual property. As a result it is free for anyone to use that knowledge. Not recognizing IK as property results in the denial of any right with respect to it as is recognized in the modern IPR systems.

As a result, indigenous knowledge is being used rampantly in so called ‘inventions’, including biotechnological ‘inventions’, and consequently intellectual property rights are being acquired on it by way of patent grants. This phenomenon popularly referred to as biopiracy means the unauthorized use of the IK that belongs to communities, without taking permission from them or coming to any kind of ‘licensing’ or benefit sharing arrangement with them.

The consequence of biopiracy is that the holders of IK do not get any share of the benefits derived from the commercial exploitation of the patented product that is based on their knowledge. Second, once a patent is granted the holders of IK themselves, are in principle, barred from using their knowledge to make products and commercially exploit them. This injustice leads to a situation where the rightful owners of the knowledge end up paying to the patent holder for use of and access to the patented product, which is based on their knowledge.

India is having to contend with rising levels of biopiracy as it is faced with increasing number of foreign patents on products that are clearly derived from its IK and bioresources and appropriated under intellectual property rights by researchers and commercial enterprises – for example patents on Neem, Turmeric, basmati rice —without any compensation to the knowledge’s creators or possessors.

Similarly, when it comes to crops, the use and continuous improvement of farmers’ varieties (land races) is essential in many agricultural systems. In many countries, seed supply fundamentally relies on the decentralized, local system of seed production which operates on the basis of the diffusion of the best seed available within a community, and local farmers ensure that the farming community is supplied with planting material.

The knowledge of farmers about crop varieties and their special characteristics has been central to the development of new plant varieties and for global food security.

NOTE: The contribution of indigenous crop varieties (landraces) to the global economy and food security is also significant. According to one projection (UNCTAD, 2000), the global value added to rice yields alone by the use of landraces amounted to US$ 400 million per year. The contribution of landraces for rice breeding in India has been estimated to be US$ 75 million to India’s total rice yields (Evenson, 1996). According to one source (Frontline, October 10, 2003); of the 24,000 rice varieties currently available in India, 19,000 are traditional varieties.

Gene Campaign’s Activities

Documentation of indigenous knowledge and advocacy for legal recognition and protection are Gene Campaign’s two main efforts.

Documentation of Indigenous Knowledge

For the past decade Gene Campaign has been documenting indigenous knowledge across regions that are populated by indigenous communities to collect and document their knowledge about flora and fauna related to healing and agriculture.
A research partner with Gene Campaign who works with the Bakarwal community in Kashmir, states: “Every time and elderly person passes on, we lose an encyclopaedia”. When the community loses that encyclopaedia, it also loses the many special techniques and knowledge that has enabled it to survive in its environment and address its needs.

Apart from conserving the fast eroding knowledge base of indigenous and local communities, the purpose of the documentation effort is also to place on record that this body of knowledge exists in the public domain and is the property of the indigenous people of India. This IK documentation apart from formally recording all the IK on bioresources and their use, also serves as proof of prior art to challenge the grant of wrongful patents and to establish the claim of communities to share in profits when / if commercialization of the indigenous knowledge and bioresources takes place.

Placing this knowledge in the public domain and /or establishing the source of this knowledge as that belonging to local communities is the strongest evidence against patent claims by the corporate sector. This step is essential to prevent private companies from stealing the knowledge/ technology of indigenous communities without the necessary acknowledgment or payment. It is necessary to establish their claim to share in the profits made from products like herbal drugs and cosmetics which use indigenous knowledge.

(A) Documentation of IK in adivasi areas
Documentation of the IK and bioresources have been taken up of following adivasi communities:

  • Munda and Oranon adivasi communities of Jharkhand
  • Bhil, Bhilalas and Patliyas adivasi communities of Madhya Pradesh.
  • Tharu adivasi community of Uttaranchal, and
  • Ahom, Mishing and Tiwa communities of Assam.

Teams of educated young men and women from the villages are trained in selected locations to conduct the survey and documentation of indigenous knowledge among the adivasi people.

Medicinal plants and knowledge of its use for human and veterinary care is documented because with the passing away of this generation of Vaidyas (traditional healers) the entire body of their knowledge of traditional medicine will be lost forever, especially because since the children of these healers are keener to get lowly government jobs rather than continue with their healing skills. Elders in the village, medical practitioners and traditional healers are consulted in the collection and understanding of the information. They not only know the economically and therapeutically useful plants but also where they are found, the parts of the plants that can be used, the method of collecting them, the seasons for collection and their preparations and so on.

The IK documentation done in the various states recorded information such as:

Crop biodiversity and natural resources of the area.
Extent of forest area, important tree species, forest produce and supplementary food resources.
Commonly available medicinal plants & their traditional preparations for:

  • Curing human disease.
  • Curing veterinary disease.
  • Curing plant disease.
  • Use as colouring agents.

Minor Forest produce collected by the adivasis.
Collection centres for forest produce.
IK in agriculture

  • Indigenous Farming Methods
  • Land preparation, fertilizer and nutrient management
  • Soil and seed treatment
  • Sowing and transplantation practices
  • Disease and Pest Management
  • Water Management
  • Harvesting & Post Harvesting Practices
  • Seed & Grain Storage
  • Seed Selection

Through the process of IK documentation Gene Campaign revived communities’ interest in their own IK by discusses with the community, especially youth, the importance conserving and using IK, the growing commercial importance of this knowledge system, the vast potential of the herbal products industry which is dependent on IK and the economic importance of retaining this knowledge system.

Safeguarding the IK documented so far: The documentation of IK has not been made public but has been submitted to the Department of Science and Technology, because there is no legal framework in place to protect IK in the country. The experience with Basmati rice and Turmeric reveals that products and knowledge pertaining to IK are often pirated. Once the country has a law protecting databases of knowledge and information, and there is legal ownership of indigenous and local communities over their knowledge, this documentation can be made available for use.

Developing an IK database format: Gene Campaign is developing the outlines of what a database on IK should look like. It is collaborating with TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council) to develop an electronic database of the data being documented by itself and other groups in the country. Through it advocacy efforts it plans to make this a legally protected database with a national ownership, with which to fight against biopiracy.

(B) Protection of Indigenous Knowledge

Along with documenting IK, Gene Campaign is also advocating for its legal recognition and protection for the benefit of its rightful owners – rural and adivasi communities.

A three-year study was conducted to analyse whether the existing national and international laws recognize and give rural and tribal communities control over their surrounding natural resources and whether they allow IK to exist and develop. The general objective of the study was arrive at a direction towards preparing a sui generis law to protect IK, in case no legal instruments for the same existed.

Details of the study:

  • It explored the role of customary practices and norms to protect IK and conserve bio-resources, and the factors that have led to their decline. It also examined whether the Constitution, the state laws and the state machinery create an enabling environment for customary norms and practices to flourish and resource and knowledge to be conserved and protected.
  • It analysed domestic legislation that had a bearing on bioresources and the IK associated with it. The laws examined were the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, the Patent (Amendment) Act, 2005, the Geographical Indications of Goods (Protection and Registration) Act, 1999; forest and wildlife legislation as well as draft legislation like the Seeds Bill and the Tribal Rights Bill.
  • It analysed the need for action at the international level to protect IK and critically examined the various international instruments and initiatives that have played an important role in raising the concerns related to IK of biological diversity for example Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO) and the World Bank.

    It evaluated the politics operating in the field of international law making, which determines the outcome of international instruments and initiatives. And finally, offered suggestions as to how a developing country like India could negotiate better and adequately utilize the flexibilities embedded within the international treaties to assert their domestic priorities.

As a result of this study, a book titled INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE OF BIODIVERSITY AND ITS PROTECTION, along with six exhaustive briefing papers were published and circulated to civil society, the media, and elected representatives of the country for awareness and consensus building on the need to protect IK in India and internationally.

The briefing papers presented six different perspectives to understanding and recognising the importance of IK:

  1. Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources: The Convention on Biodiversity, The Bonn Guidelines and Emerging ABS Frameworks: It presented the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) issues within the context of bioresources and IK sharing that existed in international agreements and legislation.

  1. Customary Law and the Protection of Indigenous Knowledge: This presented existing statutory and customary laws (that adivasi and rural communities followed traditionally with regards to biodiversity protection) in the country, and evaluated their potential to effectively safeguard IK.

  1. Understanding Declarations of Indigenous Peoples: It presented the contributions of Indigenous people to bio-resource and agriculture development of the world, and analysed the various declarations made by them and the impact these declarations had made in IK being legally recognised.

  1. A Gendered Perspective of Indigenous Knowledge: It justified the need to include women in any dialogue related biodiversity management because the world over women it was women who played an important role in conserving and nurturing bio-diversity.

  1. Internalising Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Application of Precautionary Principle in Natural Resource: It presented the rationale behind the upholding precautionary principlewith regard to natural resource managements why it needs to be applied more in the context of preserving biodiversity.

    The precautionary principle ensures that a substance or activity posing a threat to the environment is prevented from taking place as it can adversely affect the environment, even if there is no scientific or conclusive proof establishing a causal connection between the two. For eg. the prohibition of human activity in forest reserves is made on the precautionary principle in as much as it is considered that human activity poses a risk to forests and even though there is no conclusive proof establishing a causal linkage.

  1. Exploring the Scope of Indigenous Knowledge Protection within the Legal Regime for Forest and Wildlife in India: The paper examined whether existing legal provisions in the country as well as Policies give due recognition to the importance of availability of natural resources to the holders of IK. Analysed were the Indian Forest Act, 1927, The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and The Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. Since the primary subjects of these Acts were forest and wildlife and not IK, the objective was to see if they provide the holders of IK access to the natural resources, which is extremely necessary for the existence and development of IK.

The aim of these papers and the research project was to work towards developing a system that would effectively protect the IK of bioresources in the interest of the local communities and the nation. Expert analysis and consultations with a wide range of stakeholders helped GC to identify what likely mechanisms could emerge from the existing situation, what practical improvements could be made at the national and international levels and what could possibly be the best system of protection India could forge for itself – is the present situation effective enough or whether there is in fact a need for a separate sui generis legislation to protect the IK of bioresources.

(C) Biodiversity Conservation
As a member of the multi-agency Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Program (BCPP), Gene Campaign has been working with other institutions to conduct studies in the various habitats like forests, wetlands, coastal areas, arid areas, etc.

These studies are being used to develop a conservation strategy and to prioritise the areas that should be flagged for first degree conservation. On the Governing Board of the Great Himalayan National Park, Gene Campaign works closely with the government of Himachal Pradesh for the conservation of India’s largest National Park.

As a member of the Forest Conservation Committee of the Govt. of India, it is working closely with the Ministry of Environment and Forests to minimise the diversion of Indian forests and promote strategies for its conservation. Gene Campaign was instrumental in the setting up of the so-called ‘Bastar Committee’ whose task it is to demarcate certain inviolate forest areas like in the richly forested region of Bastar where no mining activities should be allowed.

Conservation programs with children: These programs designed to show the importance of conservation and the economic value of IK and biodiversity associated with it, are conducted outdoors as games in villages. There is a special effort to include non-school going children specially girls.

Gene Campaign is documenting and mapping the distribution of wild relatives of crop plants in the Western Ghats, which is a biodiversity rich area. It intends to use these maps to delineate certain areas as “Genetic Reserves” requiring a special conservation status since these areas are important as gene banks for breeding new varieties and therefore for future food security.

The creation of the National Biodiversity Development Board (NBDB) was a result of the sustained advocacy by Gene Campaign and other groups, following the finalisation of the draft Biodiversity Act.

As a member of the NBDB, in recognition of its long association with biodiversity conservation, Gene Campaign is directly involved in formulating policies on the conservation and use of biodiversity for India.

As a member of the multi-agency Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Program (BCPP), Gene Campaign has been involved in developing conservation strategies and prioritising conservation areas in the various habitats like forest, wetlands, coasts etc. As chair of the IPR committee of BCPP, Gene Campaign has helped to frame guidelines for the storage of IK, the nature of such data banks, confidentiality of data and access to it.