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AAAS Website Seeks to Protect
Traditional Knowledge of Plants
The Kung bushmen once roamed the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, staving off their hunger by eating pieces of the 6-foot-tall Hoodia cactus. But in a world that values slender physiques, the appetite-suppressing ingredient of the Hoodia has traveled beyond the borders of the Kalahari to become the focus of a battle between South Africa's remaining bushmen, and a British company that patented the ingredient it calls P57.
The story of the Hoodia cactus is not unusual in a world in which individuals and corporate interests are increasingly looking to traditional societies for information on plants with qualities that might be commercially valuable, according to Stephen Hansen, senior program associate with AAAS's Science and Human Rights Program. The South African cactus is now included on the "Bio Piracy Hotlist," a feature of a new AAAS website, TEK*PAD, the acronym for "Traditional Ecological Knowledge Prior Art Database."
"Everyone should be able to benefit from new discoveries that are based on indigenous knowledge," says Hansen, "and no single entity should have sole proprietary control over such benefits."
Hoodia sp. Rosh Pinnah, Namibia.
Created in October 2001 in an effort to deter inappropriate patenting, TEK*PAD serves as a clearinghouse for internet web pages and resources that document traditional ecological knowledge.
'Innovative, Promising Effort'
The website links to 100 web pages and databases, and includes 40,000 entries from all over the world. The site includes a search engine for the database, a thesaurus for plant names and medicinal uses, and the Biopiracy Hotlist, which in addition to Hoodia, lists turmeric, neem, kava, quinine, and Ayahuasca as plants used by traditional communities that are also the subjects of patenting efforts.
"In the domain of defensive protection, different types of TK require different means to be made available and searchable as prior art," says Shakeel Bhatti, Senior Program Officer, Global Intellectual Property Issues Division, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). "Among the extensive experimentation which is occurring globally on TK as prior art, TEK*Pad represents an innovative and promising effort."
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, electronic public databases, including the Internet, can help establish "prior art." Such a designation would prevent the granting of a patent because it would demonstrate that the plant or its ingredients have been available and in use for the purpose specified in the patent application.
The site has two main objectives. It allows individuals or community groups the opportunity for "defensive disclosure" -- a way of publicly displaying their indigenous knowledge. Once the knowledge is published on the Internet, it becomes proof of prior art. TEK*PAD also helps patent officers look for prior art by giving them the tools they need to search the databases available on the web.
Currently, WIPO, with 179 member states, is working to expand the protection of indigenous rights. In collaboration with AAAS's human rights program and with national and international public and private agencies, WIPO seeks to create a sui generis protections system.
"This would allow national governments to recognize the rights of individuals and communities to their indigenous knowledge and to local practices and customs," says Hansen, an anthropologist. "Such a system would pave the way for using oral traditions as a proof of prior art."
8 May 2002
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