Imagining a Traditional Knowledge Commons

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Report: Imagining a Traditional Knowledge Commons. A community approach to sharing traditional knowledge for non-commercial research. IDLO, 2009. By Elan Abrell et al.



First paragraph:

"In August 2009, around 80 traditional healers living in the Bushbuckridge area of the Mpumalanga province in South Africa developed a biocultural community protocol1 which provided clear terms and conditions for access to their collectively held traditional knowledge (TK)."

See also our selection under: Traditional Knowledge Commons

The Biocultural Approach

The term ‘Bioculture’ implies ways of being and knowing of communities whose way of life is based on a deep sense of kinship with the land, the plants and animals. [1]

A Biocultural Community Protocol is a protocol that is developed as a result of a consultative process within a community that outlines the community's core cultural and spiritual values and customary laws relating to their traditional knowledge and resources based on which the community provides clear terms and conditions under which access to their knowledge and resources shall be provided. [2]

Biospiritual Virtues are virtues at the heart of the spirituality of biocultural communities and form the ethical foundation of customary laws and cultural practices of these communities. [3]

Unlike liberal conceptions of rights that emanate from a conceptualization of the individual as the fundamental agent of social activity, a biocultural approach to rights takes as its primary focus the community and the myriad relationships that bind it together.

In a biocultural context, however, in which TK rather than private property is one of the primary agents mediating human relations, the biospiritual virtues that determine a TK user's responsibilities to the community and the ecosystem provide the basis for a somewhat different rights perspective that focuses on communal ties as well as the individuals that share them.

These communities perceive their knowledge as an outcome of virtuous relationships with the land, the plants and animals. Knowledge in these communities is not seen as property that can be owned and sold as a disembodied commodity but rather the very flow of knowledge affirms biocultural relationships within communities and between communities and their ecosystems.

Knowledge is not purely material but simultaneously cultural and spiritual and its movement and application promotes a kind of virtuous cohesiveness.

Amongst biocultural communities, the movement of knowledge does not generate profits as in the sale of commodities. On the contrary the knowledge itself increases by creating a continually widening community of knowledge holders all of who are bound by the code that insists that they do not profit from what they have received freely. Whereas in a transaction of the sale of knowledge, the profit remains with the seller, within biocultural communities, the increase follows the knowledge while simultaneously affirming cultural and spiritual bonds within communities.

While biocultural communities, be they healers or pastoralists, do engage in transactions where they are compensated in money or in kind in exchange for their knowledge, the nature of TK is such that it places a clear limit on the extent to which the knowledge can be commodified.

Because when knowledge that emerges from certain cultural and spiritual relationships is commodified it results in an erosion of a value system that creates such knowledge and frays the ties that hold the community together. Some of the healers believe that it even affects the efficacy of the knowledge since it separates the healer from the community by restricting their interaction to a material relationship mediated by the commodity. The movement of knowledge as a relationship on the other hand blurs the boundaries between the self and others strengthening cultural and spiritual bonds that makes for a community.

The healers see a large part of healing as involving a spiritual reaching out to the ailing, which is adversely affected if the entire relationship is based on a pure commercial transaction."

The TK Commons

"The question that confronts us now is whether the notion of community can be expanded to include non-traditional users who would be willing to use TK in accordance with the biospiritual virtues of the community and be willing to freely share any increase of knowledge that arises from its use with the community.

The expanded notion of community that includes non-traditional users who are willing to allow their use of TK to be regulated by the biospiritual virtues of the community providing such knowledge is the TK Commons.

The TK Commons is a widening circle that goes beyond .. direct reciprocity.

Whereas reciprocity involves a relationship of two, a circle requires the continued movement and growth of knowledge that benefits not just the original community that provided the knowledge but other communities too. While the benefits are indirect, the members of a TK Commons benefit not just from the increase in their knowledge but also from the knowledge of others who are a part of the Commons.

The creation of a TK Commons would require a community of TK holders to develop in accordance with their biospiritual virtues the terms and conditions for non-commercial access to their TK. These terms and conditions would be in the form a license that would need to be complied with by non-commercial users of TK such as students, non-profits, academic researchers and archivists.

The general characteristics of the licenses (Traditional Knowledge Commons License) could include:

a) The use of the knowledge takes place only on the terms of the license. Any person using the knowledge is therefore taken to have agreed to be bound by the license. The license sets out not general permission to use the knowledge but how knowledge can be used, what obligations a user incurs to respect the spiritual and cultural values of the knowledge bearing community. The licensee will not appropriate or profit from any new development based on the TK by restricting further access to such new development or requiring payment for it, but will instead place these new developments back into the TK Commons, usually by placing it under the same license.

b) TK shall be used in a manner that is not inconsistent with the stated terms and conditions in the license.

c) Any subsequent non-commercial users of the TK or developments based on it who access it from the licensee will also have to comply with the terms of the license.

d) All licensees must provide enduring recognition of the source of the TK.

e) Any change in licensed use of the TK would require explicit permission from the holders of the TK.

f ) The licensee will not use the TK in any manner that would cause harm to the environment

g) The license requires that subsequent users of the knowledge comply with the license

Researchers who engage directly with TK communities would need to take on greater responsibilities to the community in terms of non-monetary benefit sharing than others who make use of the knowledge, as it is mediated through the primary researchers. Primary researchers would therefore need research licenses which impose a broader range of requirements on them, one of which is that the various research outputs must be licensed under traditional knowledge commons licenses. A research license would be issued to an individual researcher on personal application by that researcher, while a traditional knowledge commons license would operate in the same manner as a free software license, by accompanying the encoded knowledge resources and applies to everyone who uses the resource. Both types of licenses would conform to the general characteristics listed above. [4] ([5])


"A TK Commons allows communities to share their traditional knowlegde whilst being able to equally define and control its use. It provides communities with an opportunity to globalize their biospiritual virtues that are at the heart of their way of life and have ensured conservation of biological diversity. It offers a possibility for communities to ensure their knowledge isn’t disembodied by widening the understanding of ‘community’ to include all non-commercial users who agree to abide by the biospiritual virtues that underlie the use of TK.

TK Commons ultimately seeks to view the knowledge of indigenous and local communities as a total social phenomenon that moves beyond understanding TK as a purely tradable commodity to promoting the cultural and spiritual dimensions of TK that underlie a biocultural way of life. In the process, the TK Commons would provide a medium through which an indigenous view of rights as inextricably joined to biospiritual virtues and reciprocal responsibilities can be incorporated into the larger international human rights framework. Rather than merely relying on the generations of rights that have already been formulated, ILCs could actively participate through the TK Commons in the ongoing process of shaping the evolving framework of international human rights. The TK Commons would thus enable ILCs to build on previous generations of rights with new articulations of biocultural rights that recognize the complex, interdependent relationship of ecosystems, human communities and the cohesive flows of knowledge that bind and shape them. It provides the possibility of a participatory system of rights guided and supported as much by appreciation of community bonds and biospiritual virtues as it is by legal mandate and market processes, an expanded community through, which we can all participate and, in Neruda's words, widen “the boundaries of our being” through our experience of “the affection that comes from those whom we do not know.” (