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Global moves to improve the rights of indigenous communities over their local knowledge have largely failed, say experts.

This has resulted in intellectual property rights (IPR) claims by indigenous people dropping to "barely a trickle", according to the Montreal-based International Expert Group on Biotechnology in their report launched this month (13 November).

In Brazil, for example, only seven phytotherapeutic items have been developed with local resources compared with 700 patents on similar items filed almost entirely by foreigners worldwide.

The authors say attempts to ensure benefit-sharing with numerous indigenous communities have been hindered by an overemphasis on the ownership of intellectual property rights, which has proven a roadblock to progress.

They highlight Brazil's case, where legislation was passed in 2001 with the aim of protecting indigenous rights.

"Our legislation assures property rights to the communities, but there is an overabundance of overlapping rights," says Edson Beas Rodrigues, co-author of the report and a researcher at the Institute of Law on International Trade and Development, Brazil.

"Use of traditional knowledge and local, natural products depends on the consent of several indigenous groups that -- theoretically or actually -- 'own' them, and these groups do not always agree on these questions," he told SciDev.Net. "Research institutes and industries cannot access the knowledge and indigenous groups do not benefit from any research that could have been done.

"We try to protect indigenous rights so hard that our laws are in fact preventing the use of traditional knowledge," said Rodrigues. "We have to find a balance between assuring intellectual property and promoting access to traditional knowledge."

The report also considers case studies from Kenya and northern Canada.

"We found the same stumbling blocks in the traditional communities of Brazil as we did in the boardroom of a corporation that holds the patent to a gene that can determine the chance a woman will develop breast cancer," says Richard Gold, chair of the group from McGill University, Canada.

"Most striking is that no matter where we looked, the lack of trust played a vital role in blocking negotiations that could have benefited both sides, as well as the larger public."