If we have never been modern, they have never been traditional

‘Traditional knowledge’, biodiversity, and the flawed ABS paradigm

Authored by: Graham Dutfield

Routledge Handbook of Biodiversity and the Law

Print publication date:  December  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138693302
eBook ISBN: 9781315530857
Adobe ISBN:


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Traditional knowledge and customary practices relate to all three objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity: conservation, sustainable use and benefit-sharing arising from access. 2 The first two are largely taken for granted and there is a wealth of empirical evidence showing, without falling into the trap of romanticism, that indigenous peoples’ knowledge, innovations and practices are enormously relevant to in situ conservation and sustainability, often in positive ways. However, most of the attention that traditional knowledge (TK) gets concerns the issue of how to return benefits from the use of traditional knowledge and associated genetic material in high-tech corporate discovery, research, development and manufacturing. In 2010, the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted, and has since entered into force. The Protocol, whose full name is the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of the Benefits Arising from their Utilization, seeks to further the third objective of the CBD: the fair and equitable benefit-sharing arising from the use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge (Greiber et al., 2012; UNCTAD, 2014) – often contracted to ABS. However, the conventional wisdom behind the TK-related aspects of the ‘ABS+plus IP’ 3 model embodied by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol is fundamentally flawed. This chapter identifies four main reasons why such approaches generally fail to provide solutions that are fair, equitable and efficient. We call these: (i) the hybrid nature of knowledge systems; (ii) the problem of origin and attribution; (iii) the overregulation and corporatization tendency; and (iv) the exchange value ‘distraction’. In the meantime, traditional knowledge is being lost worldwide. International solutions are no substitute for legal and policy initiatives giving more power to local people to make their own decisions. However, whether they elect to retain, abandon, mix or transform their local biodiversity-friendly livelihoods and customary practices is ultimately for them to decide.

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