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Biopiracy’ increasing threat to survival of Asian indigenous culture

5 June 2003

The violation of Asian indigenous people’s intellectual and cultural property rights through ‘biopiracy’ and other forms of exploitation of their collective heritage is a serious threat to their cultural survival as distinct peoples. Such are the conclusions of a new Minority Rights Group International report1 launched today, highlighting the need for urgent action on the part of Asian governments and the United Nations to secure and restore these vital rights.

The appropriation of traditional indigenous knowledge of crops and medicinal plants by multinational companies, often without consent or recompense, known as ‘biopiracy’ is just one of many exploitative practices. Indigenous peoples rarely benefit from the financial gains of pharmaceutical companies for example, who are quick to impose patents and exploit this traditional knowledge, which has existed in indigenous communities for generations. As Asian governments have recognised the commercial potential of exploiting indigenous knowledge, this has led to further threats to their survival including the denial of rights to their traditional lands.

Director of Minority Rights Group International, Mark Lattimer, points out that many indigenous peoples face life-threatening and culturally destructive issues on a daily basis, making it difficult for them to protect themselves from rights violations through lobbying at the international level. Exploitation of their intellectual and cultural property serves to further weaken and marginalize these most vulnerable communities already facing severe threats to their existence as distinct peoples. ‘Most Asian governments are cash-strapped and therefore need to exploit all resources, including intellectual and cultural resources, in order to generate income’ stated Mr. Lattimer, ‘Indigenous peoples are being dispossessed of their ancestral lands to make way for mines, dams, logging concessions and tourism complexesÂ…it is no wonder that the survival of Asian indigenous peoples is increasingly in danger.’

Minority Rights Group International calls on governments with indigenous peoples within their territories to ratify and implement international standards including ILO Convention 169 and the UNESCO Cultural Property Treaties. Governments are further urged to adopt the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its current form. MRG’s report highlights the need for the establishment of defensive intellectual property rights regimes to be established in combination with the development of alternative patent initiatives which protect the intellectual and cultural property rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.

Notes for editors

Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Asia by Michael A. Bengwayan, is available online.