Control and Access to Indigenous knowledge and Biological Resources

Submitted by Yianna Lambrou, Ph.D
to the Biodiversity Convention Office
Environment Canada
October 31, 1997

As indigenous peoples increasingly manage theiraffairs in ways they see culturally and spiritually appropriate, theyhave expressed concern over the trespasses committed by non-indigenouspeoples seeking to use, manage and control the land and its resources.Motivated by an exclusively human-centered point of view non-indigenouspolicies, research, laws, and economic mechanisms, have in many casesexploited resources and disregarded relationships that are destroyingthe capacity of indigenous peoples to be responsible to the ‘seventhgeneration’ (Clarkson et al, 1993).
This paper will seek to providea critical analysis of the means, both currently existing andenvisioned, by which indigenous peoples can control access to and theuse of their biological resources. Since extensive work has alreadybeen done on a previous paper on Benefit Sharing and IndigenousKnowledge (submitted to the Biodiversity Convention Office, September28, 1997) it will not be necessary to repeat the discussion on thenature of indigenous knowledge but use it as the basis for the analysisin this paper.
“Control of access” refers to the self-determinedprocess of managing biological and other resources in a holistic way tosustain indigenous peoples and their cultures, the environment andtheir natural resources for present and future generations. Control ofaccess to biological resources is a contentious topic for indigenousand non-indigenous peoples since it entails a clash of cultural andspiritual approaches to the use of land based on different values,concepts of power sharing and equity. For example, the concept of“control” stimulates memories of colonization and marginalization forindigenous peoples as well as the rude experiences of extractivistmethods of resource exploitation for profit, to the detriment of theenvironment and cultural integrity. Control of access is a politicalissue of self-government and self-determination, as well as an issue ofhuman rights and ethics.
In the review of the literature, I haveidentified below the most important contested areas for the control ofindigenous knowledge and biological resources.
Relationship between researchers and Indigenous communities.Research and the subsequent need for ethical guidelines for workingwith communities given the impact research has on the survival ofindigenous knowledge and the spiritual and economic well-being ofcommunities.
Relationship between Indigenous communities and Provincial and Federal governments.How non-indigenous research is interpreted (and the legislation, actionand policies) that ensue from this research which includescomanagement, environmental assessments and natural resourcesmanagement practices.
Relations between indigenous communities and corporate/commercial interests.The role of self-determination and self-government which underliesdiscussions of control and benefit sharing and therefore the legalmechanisms available for controlling the use of indigenous knowledge,biological resources and the long term benefits of these resources forindigenous peoples. This topic was analysed extensively in my paper“Benefit Sharing and Indigenous Knowledge” presented to EnvironmentCanada; the paper on Intellectual Properties by Howard Mann alsopresented covered most of the relevant issues. For this reason thelegal and intellectual property controls mechanisms will not bediscussed here. The issues of land claims, self-determination andself-government should be assumed to permeate and underlie alldiscussions on control mechanisms. Until indigenous peoples have theright to manage and be fully responsible for their affairs, any controlmechanisms over biological resources will only be partially successful.
Relations within indigenous communities and the non-indigenous world.Control of access to biological resources has been denied to indigenouspeoples by historical circumstances and political decisions. Lack ofpower and control over their environment is seen as a denial of theirhuman rights as a sovereign people. Therefore political action isneeded globally to rectify past injustices that will heal communitiesby restoring cultural autonomy, respect for their knowledge andself-reliance.

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