FOR THE GOOD OF ALL Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity

Published: 03 February 2004



Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity

Colin Nicholas

Published in The Star (Environment), 3 February 2004, p. 4

When indigenous peoples' rights to their knowledge, culture or territories are not recognised and protected, the consequences on the biodiversity can be immense.

I REMEMBER meeting a traditional medicine peddler at a tamu (weekly market) in Tambunan, Sabah, a few years ago. Going by the number of framed newspaper features written about him and the products prominently displayed at his stall, it was clear that the efficacy of his medicines had earned him a reputation of sorts.

When I enquired where the vegetable and animal ingredients of his cures came from, he replied that he had collected them from the Hutan Tropika Borneo (Tropical Rainforest of Borneo), a phrase that was also the "trade-mark" for his medicines.  

Later, I saw the same traditional medicine peddler negotiating for four sacks of roots and inner-bark shavings that a Dusun farmer had brought in a hired pickup. No wonder the peddler could not tell me the exact source of his medicines. He had obtained them from the local indigenous peoples who live in the "hutan tropika Borneo". He himself had probably never set foot inside the forest.

Not long after that, while talking to the Semelai batin (headman) at Pos Iskandar in Tasek Bera, Pahang, I chanced upon two foreign cardiac surgeon-cum-researchers who wanted the batin's help to locate certain dipterocarp trees that were flowering along the fringe of the lake then. In further conversation with them, I discovered that they had read that those trees carried the promise of a (lucrative) cure for heart disease.
In fact, in 1966, I.H. Burkill, in his two-volume A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, listed more than
1,000 items from the forests that were being used and had the potential for commercial exploitation -- as medicines, food, personal care products, construction materials, and other uses. More recently, Hanne Christensen, in her Ethnobotany of the Iban and Kelabit, catalogued 1,144 different plant species that had ethno-botanical value in just two traditional communities.

In my stays with the Orang Asli, too, I have been shown a little of what our forests have to offer: certain vines that, when crushed, produce juice effective as shampoo and lice-remover, or the inner bark of a tree that will easily cackle into flames when everything else is rain-soaked. There is also a variety of fruits and vegetables which the Orang Asli consume that you will not find in the market, as well as a variety of natural dyes, aromatic scents and, of course, medicines.

Precious knowledge 
Clearly, the wealth of knowledge that the forest-dwelling indigenous peoples have about the usefulness of the multitude of living
things in their environment is extensive - and, invariably, no longer secret. The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, continues to investigate and confirm the effectiveness of many medicines and toxins used by indigenous peoples, and profit enormously from its commercialisation. For example, three-quarters of the 120 plant-based active compounds widely used in modern medicine today have the same modern therapeutic use as the traditional use of the plants from which they were derived.

The search continues. This is evidenced by the growing number of pharmaceutical companies and research institutions signing agreements with national or state governments to screen medicinal plants found in the traditional territories of indigenous peoples. Yet, indigenous peoples, while acknowledged as the holders of such knowledge, are not fairly compensated for the use of that knowledge. At most, their "reward" is in the wages they get as collectors of the bio-resource or as guides for bio- prospectors.

A case in point is the agreement between the Sarawak state government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to identify the active ingredients in the bitanggor plant long known among natives for its medicinal properties for a potential cure for AIDS. The natives the original discoverers who knew the plant's medicinal properties have been excluded from any direct financial remuneration or the right to use their knowledge, and even from negotiations altogether.

Even if indigenous peoples were accorded any status in such negotiations, it would be one of stake-holder. They are not seen as rights-holders, that is, holders of the right to their knowledge, to the bio-resource and to the territories those resources are found in.

This is one of the main issues that will be discussed by indigenous delegates at the 7th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP7) to be held in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 9 to 20, 2004

The International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity established by indigenous peoples during COP3 in 1996 will hold parallel meetings and side events while the inter-governmental deliberations are going on. The indigenous deliberations, coordinated by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact and PACOS Trust of Sabah, will focus on Article 8(j) on the Convention on Biological Diversity, notably on access and benefit-sharing issues.

Article 8(j) of the CBD (see box below) acknowledges that indigenous know- ledge, which has passed through generations, is holistic and ecological. It recognises that indigenous knowledge can assure the survival of the forest environment, its biological components, and the people and cultures dependent upon it that is, the ecosystem as a whole.

If indigenous culture is not respected, if indigenous traditions and spirituality are not continued, and if indigenous territories are not protected, one can expect both the biodiversity and the knowledge that comes with this to soon disappear ... forever.

All stand to lose 
There are threats today that seek to compromise (and sometimes extinguish) both the traditional knowledge of indigenous
peoples and the biodiversity of their forest homelands. Their lands are being converted to plantations, development projects or recreational sites. This inevitably involves the resettlement of indigenous peoples to new, unfamiliar areas. Other threats are less direct yet have as much impact, such as their assimilation into mainstream society or their adoption of a different worldview.

Often, indigenous peoples have had to disregard their time-tested traditions at the expense of the environment. In this regard, I recall an incident that broadened my understanding of how people's attitudes on the environment can change in a short time. Walking along a logging track with a group of Penans in Ulu Baram, Sarawak, we came across a kerameu tree laden with fruit. The purplish oval fruit is highly sought for its rich oil content. I was astonished when one of the Penans started to hack at the tree.

"Isn't there another way to get the fruits without killing the tree?" I asked.

Their answer was short and clear: "If we do not cut it down, the loggers will bulldoze it and collect the fruits themselves."

When indigenous peoples' rights to their knowledge, culture or territories are not recognised and protected, the consequences on the biodiversity can be immense.

Unfortunately, Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity itself does not call for such protection, subjecting instead each country to its own national legislations. This needs to be reformed, for existing practices and legislations are still skewed away from the interests of the indigenous peoples and, consequently, of protecting biodiversity indirectly.

Indigenous involvement crucial 
Universiti Malaya law professor Gurdial Singh has suggested several measures to provide redress to the indigenous peoples.

The first is for national governments to affirm indigenous peoples' right to exist as a people with their culture and practices intact. This affirmation must be both formal (as in fundamental constitutional guarantees) and real (by removing conditions that threaten their culture and survival).

One impediment to indigenous cultural survival is the lack of secure tenure of land. In Malaysia, native customary land titles are being extinguished at an accelerating pace.

Lands upon which indigenous peoples have lived for millennia are parcelled out, often for questionable commercial enterprises.

It should be government policy to engage indigenous and local communities in discussion when making decisions relating to biological resources. This will recognise their role, culture and knowledge as accorded to them by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Where biological resources are concerned, the indigenous peoples should have the final say. Governments could undertake research as determined and directed by indigenous peoples. Policies that enhance the use of indigenous technologies methods and allow them to control their knowledge should be developed.

The policies suggested here must emanate from, and be acceptable to, the indigenous peoples. Prof Gurdial, who is also a consultant to the Third World Network, called for laws which support these rights and regulate access to biological resources within the territories of indigenous peoples.

This will require prospectors to apply for consent from indigenous peoples and specify why access is requested, the amount of biological material to be taken and where they will be deposited, how these will be used, how the indigenous people can collaborate and, finally, what the benefit-sharing arising from the use of the resource and knowledge will be.

A law which recognises the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples may also be a necessary corollary. This could, for example, state that indigenous knowledge is, and will always remain, the right of indigenous peoples and will be inviolate. It becomes, like land, inalienable, because it is inextricably a part of their social and cultural identity.  

The aim of all this is not only to bring benefit to those who justly deserve them but to rethink the way knowledge of, and the
benefits derived from, the diversity of our biological resources should be disseminated and shared, as it was originally intended -- for the good of all. 


Article 8(j): Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices

THIS article in the Convention on Biological Diversity commits member countries to respect and preserve the traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities, as well as encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of such knowledge.

Traditional knowledge refers to the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities around the world. There is today a growing appreciation of the worth of traditional knowledge. This knowledge is valuable not only to those who depend on it in their daily lives but to modern industry and agriculture as well. Many widely used products, such as plant-based medicines and cosmetics, are derived from traditional knowledge. Governments are expected to implement Article 8(j) by adopting laws, policies and administrative arrangements for protecting traditional knowledge, with an emphasis that the prior informed consent of knowledge-holders must be attained before their know-how can be used by others.

To read more about Biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge and the Orang Asli, click here