Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Documenting Knowledge: Traditions and Technologies

The role of documentation in the protection of traditional knowledge is more complex and contentious that perhaps it first appears.

Certainly, documentation projects do suggest the building of relationships within communities and with primary knowledge-holders, and they have been lauded as important mechanisms for capacity-building and for creating commercial value through intellectual property (IP) products. However, the very notion of IP as the primary mechanism by which to protect traditional knowledge is itself troublesome. At the most recent 14th session of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) emphasised the role of customary approaches as distinct from IP frameworks. Michel Pimbert, Director of IIED's Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Programme, says "Intellectual property standards are in conflict with flexibility and adaptability." Co-author of the IIED Report, "Protecting Traditional Knowledge from the Grassroots Up," Alejandro Argumedo, a plant scientist for the Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainability Development (ANDES) in Peru, describes traditional management as somewhat contrary to the commercial principles of intellectual property, explaining "The communities developed their own agreement for sharing the benefits derived among themselves, based on traditional principles." Krystyna Swiderska, who coordinated the research for the IIED project and co-authored the report, will participate in a QMIPRI Herchel Smith Seminar on these issues in London, 5 October. If you would like more details and to reserve a place, please email QMIPRI.

My own work in this area certainly confirms similar hesitations and criticisms of intellectual property systems. What is of interest, however, is the potential to appropriate IP-related schemes in relevant and sustainable ways (including sustainability with respect to the knowledge itself). WIPO's documentation projects are indeed relevant to these questions and, although coming from an IP context, are not necessarily driven by IP agenda as such. For instance, at the 12th Session of the IGC presentations on various community documentation projects detailed some of these issues. Representatives spoke of the need to create programmes where the younger members of communities were engaging with elders as "stars" and as knowledge-holders, thus "replenishing the cup of knowledge" in ways that become more relevant and more contemporary for younger members (in terms of the technology) and are at the same time traditional. In other words, traditional mechanisms drive the application of the technology, not the other way around. One presenter noted that many government initiatives focus on the youth, without concentrating on elders. Documentation becomes a project where the elders are the focus, giving the younger members something to emulate rather than abandon.

In this respect, the WIPO assistance for documentation is of great interest. The filming of knowledge is a significant medium, dynamic and interactive and described as some as closest to the traditional transfer of knowledge (as distinct from recording through text). It is also a contemporary and relevant technology for younger generations.

Earlier this month, WIPO launched, as part of the Creative Heritage Project, a further documentation project with the Maasai of Kenya, working with the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT) and Kenya's National Museums. In addition to assistance with technology and equipment, the project includes IP training so that communities understand the materials being created in an IP-context, as well as the knowledge being sustained through traditional mechanisms supported by technology. Whether or not IP might be relevant or even effective as protection for TK, nevertheless it is essential for communities to understand what might be created in a wider legal context when materials are documented and circulated. Knowledge about IP therefore becomes a form of protection in itself, ensuring that the design of projects is achieved in such a way so as to avoid rendering knowledge vulnerable to expropriation through the very mechanism of IP itself. Training is undertaken by WIPO together with the American Folklife Library of Congress and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS).

Maasai Cultural Heritage project co-ordinator, Kolol Ole Tingoi, describes some of the same issues for documentation in his comments on the project, explaining: "This is a milestone to the community. As we preserve our own cultural traditions, we will also manage our intellectual property interests." Tingoi, together with Anne Tomme and Kiprop Lagrat of the National Museums of Kenya, has undertaken a 3-month training programme with WIPO in partnership with American Folklife Library of Congress and CDS. Wend Wendland of WIPO told Reuters, "It gives them some control. Very often it is the recording which is misappropriated."

The value of the project is not in terms of creating IP as such, but in terms of managing IP as an inevitability of any documentation initiative. Importantly, the documentation is managed within the community and is not undertaken by an external reesearcher with no connection to the community. The very action of the documentation may itself be undertaken in such a way that it is itself traditional, sustaining the mechanism of tradition as a means by which to transmit knowledge, and realising and indeed demonstrating that knowledge immediately within the community and to the benefit of the community. Documentation, thus becomes a technology of the traditional.

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