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[LUSAKA] Traditional healers and lawyers are joining forces with scientists in Zambia to help draft a national policy for protecting indigenous knowledge and genetic resources.

The committee, headed by Mwanamwambwa Lewanika, director of the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, will begin by conducting a 'situation analysis' in all nine of Zambia's provinces.

Its aim will be to assess how people use traditional knowledge and biological resources, and how much users know about patents and intellectual property rights.

This last aspect of the analysis is important because Zambia's patenting system is complicated, and people who might develop innovations based on traditional knowledge, such as remedies derived from medicinal plants, often do not know the procedure for registering a patent.

The draft policy will incorporate strategies to address concerns about the protection of traditional knowledge raised during the research.

"Countries need to be in charge of their own resources, and to recognise the role indigenous knowledge and genetic resources play in the community," says committee member Godfrey Mwila, a senior programme officer for conservation at the Southern Africa Development Community gene bank in Lusaka.

Mwila said the project, which will be completed in June, would also assist in the documentation of genetic resources and indigenous knowledge.

As part of the initiative, the National Science and Technology Council will hold a consultative meeting in June to enable researchers, traditional healers and representatives of the private sector to comment on the draft policy.

Lloyd Thole, technical department manager at the council and a member of the new committee, told SciDev.Net that the protection of intellectual property rights had not been effective in Zambia, especially in relation to indigenous knowledge.

Zambia's traditional healers were reluctant to share their knowledge for fear of it being commercially exploited or even patented in other countries, he added.

The committee plans to submit its draft policy to the Zambian government in November.

Read more about indigenous knowledge and intellectual property in SciDev.Net's indigenous knowledge and intellectual property dossiers.