Indigenous views ‘ignored’ at key WIPO meeting

Indigenous groups say they should have full and equal participation at traditional knowledge treaty talks Copyright: Flickr/United Nations Photo

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Indigenous groups attending a key UN meeting set up to drive forward intellectual property laws on genetic resources and traditional knowledge claim their proposals have been ignored and their views "dismissed without consideration".

The groups voiced their concerns in a joint statement during the 18th session of the Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore held in Geneva this month (9–13 May).

At the meeting, delegates from the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) agreed on three negotiating texts as a step towards a legally binding international agreement to protect traditional knowledge and genetic resources from exploitation.

But the indigenous groups present said that their attendance could in no way "be taken to say that Indigenous Peoples have collaborated in the drafting of these documents", nor could it be inferred as "giving any consent to the results of any process in which Indigenous Peoples have not been actively involved".

They also called on WIPO to "ensure that Indigenous Peoples have full, effective and equal participation in relevant discussions and decision-making processes concerning the legal instruments".

The problems emerged because indigenous groups are not permitted to participate directly in negotiations — their proposals must be put forward by a member state of WIPO. But because some smaller countries can have only a single delegate at the session, and there were simultaneous talks going on, some delegates who put forward proposals on behalf of indigenous groups could not be present at the subsequent discussions, when the proposals were taken out of the draft text.

Delegates from Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela sided with indigenous groups on the issue, but the meeting proceeded after acknowledging their concerns, according to Intellectual Property Watch.

The agreed texts will be used in July (18–22) to form a draft agreement for presentation at September’s WIPO general assembly.

The committee’s chair, Philip Owade, from Kenya, said that a more consensual text on traditional knowledge has been reached as a result of the meeting including its definition, the eligibility criteria, and provisional inclusion of secret and ‘sacred’ traditional knowledge.

But sources say there is still a lot of work to do before a binding agreement is reached, and there is more time for the indigenous groups to try and push their proposals. One delegate from a developing country told SciDev.Net: "It was a cleaning and polishing work, but it is not [yet] a result that general assembly demands [an agreement on legal treaty]."

To accomplish this, sources say, the IGC may request an extension of its two-year mandate, which expires in September.

Protection of genetic resources remains the most difficult issues and is "the less mature in terms of negotiating", according to WIPO.

One of the main problems is the issue of whether it should be mandatory to disclose where the genetic resources in a patent application originate from. Sources from several developing countries say disclosure is a key element of the protection of genetic resources, so the countries of origin can claim any benefits from such patents. But some delegates from developed countries say mandatory disclosure would hinder the patent system and innovation.

There is still no consensus on some other policy issues, including the extent to which protection could apply to traditional knowledge that is already in the public domain; whether states or indigenous communities should be the beneficiaries of the legal protection; and how prescriptive the text should be about any sanctions.

Link to full joint statement by the indigenous groups  [70.5kB]