Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Women Recognized

September 14, 1995
4th WCW, Beijing, China

The 4th World Conference on Women accepted a paragraph in the Platform of Action that agrees to "safeguard the existing intellectual property rights" of Indigenous women. Delegates also agreed to ensure that these rights and their use are protected, respected, and maintained. The language covers "knowledge, innovations and practices... including practices relating to traditional medicines, biodiversity and indigenous technologies". Marge Friedel of the Canadian Metis Women's Organization said that the inclusion of intellectual property rights has provided " ... safeguards we didn't have before." One portion of the statement that can be construed in a negative way is "encouraging the wider application of... " traditional indigenous knowledge. Some indigenous women view this statement as allowing further exploitation and use of traditional indigenous knowledge without adequate consent. Friedel states that we (the Indigenous Women's Caucus) didn't particularly like that [portion], but we can work with it."

The official delegates of Indonesia and India are still stating their opposition to the inclusion of the term "existing" with intellectual property rights. They believe that "existing" limits the applicability of the definition, because it may not cover future intellectual property rights. Just having traditional indigenous knowledge retained in the document is "a step forward," Friedel says. "We forced this whole paragraph in the document." As indigenous women from around the world become more involved in the international decision making processes, she says, they are better able to ensure their concerns are addressed. Friedel hopes that "as long as we keep participating ... we will make progress, we all just have to take tiny steps forward". Victoria Tauli-Corpu, coordinator of the Asian Indigenous Women's Network, stated "realistically this is what we can achieve here."

Indigenous women at the conference, including Sue Heron-Herbert of the Canadian Delegation think the language should go further than this is now, and that it will with time. Tauli-Corpus emphasized this paragraph will be the only one in existing international law that most accurately reflects an Indigenous definition of intellectual property rights. The usage employed in GATT contradicts the indigenous definition. It privatizes the knowledge; not making use of the knowledge for the common good. The applicability of the paragraph may be limited because it is "subject to national legislation and consistent with the Convention on Biological Diversity". This is problematic in places like B.C. where the provincial government does not think national legislation on resources and the Convention on Biological Diversity applies to them.

Steps indigenous women were not able to take at this conference were to gain recognition of the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the plural, not just People in the singular. The issue was not discussed formally at this Conference. The "s" in peoples is so important asserts Tauli-Corpus, "because it implies self determination". Accepting the distinctness and diversity of Indigenous Peoples within nation-states becomes a legal issue under international law. The "s" means that Indigenous Peoples will have collective rights. These rights would include rights to land, natural resources, and to develop economic systems. Most Governments in the world, including Canada, do not recognize Indigenous Peoples as having rights to social, human, cultural, civil and political self determination. An indigenous women in Canada said she "doesn't think we should hold on breath on this, not from the Canadian government." Future world conferences will focus on the issue of Indigenous People vs. Indigenous Peoples and the right of Indigenous Peoples to self determination.

Indigenous women at this conference express hope that the UN Commission on Human Rights will address their demands and include them in the Declaration on the Rights of the Worlds Indigenous People.

by Carmel Jorgensen
active environmentalist in the community of Victoria on Vancouver Island, B.C.

Mailing address: 1565 133 A St. Surrey B.C. V4A 6A3 tel. (604) 536-2394.