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Indigenous medical knowledge for intellectual property rights

By Dr. R.R. Koirala and B.N. Khaniya
Indigenous medical knowledge (IMK), also termed as folk, rural, tribal knowledge and time and often criticized in the name of science as primitive and non-scientific, in fact, is a scientific knowledge because community has handed it down several generations with observation and experiments at every generation as a culture. The multifaceted characters — anthropological, archeological, social and medical background and a strong connection with culture, economy, health, religion and technology — of indigenous knowledge have multiplied its values globally. That is why it has attracted worldwide attention in recent years. Indigenous knowledge that has direct cash value like traditional medicine and herbal resources attract greater attention than other IMK. Significant numbers of traditional healers in Nepal from Terai to Himalayan regions; classical manuscripts written in various languages; ancient recipes, technologies and medical plants from tropical to High Himalaya are the resources of indigenous knowledge.

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) — idea(s) based non-physical property, and the legal rights to prevent ideas, creations, and innovations, practices etc of an individual as well as institution from unauthorized use like copying, selling, pirating and so on — is basically concerns with knowledge, product and process, however it does not distinguish between indigenous, community-based and that of industry.

We are the signatory of several regional as well as international agreements and commitments but have not initiated seriously to develop policy, planning and regularity provisions to meet such commitment and agreement. We are very far behind from the global context in developing regulatory as well as research tools despite a signatory of several international agreements and commitments. The most important and urgent step to protect indigenous knowledge from being pirated as well as patented by unauthorized individual and institutions is registration by the state. Registration and documentation of indigenous knowledge, practitioners, their technology, and resources like medicinal plants, recipes, and manuscripts is the fundamental step.

Traditional knowledge belongs to the community people, but the present intellectual property rights regime is not clear about community ownership. Innovation and novelty are the criteria that should be met to claim intellectual property rights. Knowledge holders and knowledge practitioners are two different things. Every community member is a knowledge holder and practitioner to a certain level. However, a group of people within the community extensively practices and shares knowledge as professional healers. Depending on rigorous dedication and commitments, some traditional healers gain specialty in treating certain kinds of diseases.

Researchers says that increasing value of indigenous knowledge has increased the fear of loss. What should be prioritizing-utilization and development or protection of knowledge? Is Nepal capable to follow the process as well as regulatory systems of WIPO, WTO and other agreements/commitments as a signatory? Is IPR an opportunity or problem for developing countries like Nepal? It is learnt that lots of confusions, ambiguity and outdated provisions in Nepali IPR laws are far behind from the global context. There are several provisions in WTO and other agreements that are in favor of developing countries and the country has potentialities to be benefited as a signatory. However, appropriate system and infrastructures should de developed to take benefit. Otherwise, the country definitely loses not only the century-old cultural based knowledge but also rights over the natural resources.

Development of appropriate policy, research in IK system, establishing IK database and establishment of IK resources centers are the primary steps that assures documentation and digitalization of indigenous knowledge, recipes and technologies and codified or non-codified resources and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). It has been a debate in global as well as in national level in recent years but the country is lacking a clear policy and laws to not only to preserve and utilize but also protect the century old wealth of the Himalayas from piracy and unethical use by outsiders.

Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC) and Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) have initiated works for protection of traditional medicine. NHRC is working for developing projects for developing IPR guidelines, documentation of indigenous knowledge, knowledge holders, practitioners, recipes, technology and related resources like Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs). Similarly, MoHP has initiated developing a national policy for preservation, development, utilization and protection of various systems of traditional medicine. Such activities from two apex bodies of the country definitely contribute in the protection of our centuries old traditional wealth.

(The authors are associated with Nepal Health Research Council.)
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