By Assad Bhuglah

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Human beings do so many things in their day-to-day life, with confidence and certainty, that they little realize how and where they learned the art and skills of executing their routine actions. The Bhandari who prepares a delicious Biryani or a spicy Haleem; the parents who teach family manners etiquette to their kids; the labourers who toil the land and cultivate sugarcanes and so on – they did not acquire the knowledge from formal training or schools. They inherited it from their elders and ancestral links. In modern parlance, this is known as traditional knowledge --- which can be defined as know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity. Traditional knowledge embodies a wealth of wisdom and experience of nature gained over millennia from direct observations, and transmitted—most often orally—over generations. There is a common idiom that says when an elder dies, a library is buried with him and when a community disappears, an archive of memories vanishes.

Most indigenous people have traditional songs, stories, legends, dreams, methods and practices as means of transmitting specific human elements of traditional knowledge.  Sometimes it is preserved in artefacts handed from father to son or mother to daughter. In virtually all of these systems, knowledge is transmitted directly from individual to individual.

In layman’s language, traditional knowledge could be understood as knowledge which has been gathered or accumulated by a community through years of experience; it is often tried and tested over long period of time; it is also well adapted to local culture and environment: the main emphasis of it is on minimizing risks for the community rather than maximizing profits. Traditional knowledge is deep rooted in every community across the globe. Such kind of knowledge system is vital for their wellbeing and for sustainable development. It has to be kept in mind that traditional knowledge is collective knowledge of the whole community and it can never be the sole and exclusive property of a single individual who may pretend to claim a right over it. In Mauritius, the methods and processes of preparing biryani, kalya, dholl puri, achards, alouda, dahi, mehendi and many other routine things are traditional knowledge of all Mauritians and no single individual or company can exercise exclusive rights over these matters.

For example, Turkish coffee combines special preparation and brewing techniques with a rich communal traditional culture. The freshly roasted beans are ground to a fine powder; then the ground coffee, cold water and sugar are added to a coffee pot and brewed slowly on a stove to produce the desired foam. The beverage is served in tiny cups, accompanied by a glass of water, and is mainly drunk in coffee-houses where people meet to converse, share news and read books. The tradition itself is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, refinement and entertainment that permeates all walks of life. An invitation for coffee among friends provides an opportunity for intimate talk and the sharing of daily concerns. Turkish coffee also plays an important role on social occasions such as engagement ceremonies and holidays; its knowledge and rituals are transmitted informally by family members through observation and participation. The grounds left in the empty cup are often used to tell a person’s fortune. Turkish coffee is regarded as part of Turkish cultural heritage: it is celebrated in literature and songs, and is an indispensable part of ceremonial occasions

Traditional medicine is more than a medicinal system. It not only aims at treating physical illness but also takes into account the mental and emotional wellbeing and community health. Today, many doctors realize that even the symbolic aspects of certain healing ceremonies and spiritual practices can have important psychological impact on patients and may contribute to healing. Many common cures and medicines that are in use today were initially discovered by indigenous peoples long ago, such as quinine, turmeric, fennel seeds, watermelon seeds etc.

The derivatives of neem have been part of traditional knowledge of India. The fungicide qualities of the neem tree and its use had been known in India for over 2,000 years. Surprisingly, a patent was granted in 1995 by the European Patent Office to the multinational corporation W.R Grace for a fungicide derived from seeds of the neem tree, thus giving it the exclusive right to commercially exploit it. This was a flagrant case of bio-piracy. However, following strong protests by the Indian government, the European Patent Office finally agreed to revoke the patent in 2004.

Historically, the Indonesian batik artistic community has been based in Solo, Java. The Indonesian government considers batik to be a traditional art form that needs to be protected under intellectual property legislation. Batik is considered a traditional practice because designs and knowledge have been passed down for centuries from generation to generation and the designs are infused with stories, histories and significations that are not readily apparent or transferable to outsiders or those that purchase the batik cloth. The efforts of the Indonesian government to legally protect its traditional arts are in response to the increased reproduction of the batik styles in other in other neighbouring countries. The artists themselves are worried about the reproduction of their designs by outsiders who do not know the meanings or significance of certain designs. This is a defensive intellectual property strategy. The design patent framework serves as a preventative mechanism for unauthorized use of batik designs.  

The reality on the ground is that people who possess the traditional knowledge are not at a position to enjoy the benefits which they can derive with the help of this knowledge. As many of their traditional knowledge like, medicinal plants, culinary secrets, folkdance, handicrafts, music, ceremonies and culture are not documented, there is a scope of pirating these by others including multinational companies. These companies are making money by the full utilization of the pirated knowledge and by not sharing profit to holders of knowledge.

The unlicensed use of traditional knowledge by third parties, such as corporations and multi-nationals, and deriving commercial benefits from it, has been of particular concern to the authentic owners of this knowledge.  Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, intellectual property has been considered a fundamental human right of all peoples.  Only recently, however, has the need to protect, preserve and provide for the fair use of traditional knowledge entered the domestic and international debate on intellectual property rights. The rationale for protecting traditional knowledge centres on questions of fundamental justice and the ability to protect, preserve and control one’s cultural heritage.

Human beings since time immemorial have been passing on knowledge. This knowledge is ancient in nature and has been followed since ages. It is a gift of ancestors and therefore, it cannot be separated from them. It is their innovation, their invention, their practice, their skills and their artefacts which have been developed over the years according to the changing needs of the society. This traditional knowledge is a valuable heritage for the communities and cultures that develop and maintain it, and as such it should not be allowed to be hijacked by others.