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Recognizing the Symbiosis between Genetic Resources and Indigenous Knowledge

The Experience of Gene Campaign


09 / 1997

The debate over intellectual property rights is flawed by a bias which consists in treating the research conducted in universities or research institutes as ’science’ while dismissing the knowledge systems rural communities have developed. That is, at least, the argument put forth by Suman Sahai, a genetician running the New Delhi-based group Gene Campaign. She explains that agricultural practices ranging from pest management to seed germination tests or sowing techniques are the result of years of empirical observations and field experimentations by women and men farmers. Similarly, the diversity in rice, mango or mustard by no means emanates from the wild. The hundreds, sometimes the thousands of landraces found throughout the Indian subcontinent have been bred by farmers who continually select and cross-breed plants according to well-defined criteria. The traits peasants have sought to bring out in their crops are as diverse as high salt tolerance, good taste, short cooking time, drought resistance. Their breeding techniques are essentially no different from the selection techniques employed by plant breeders. Moreover, the genetic material used in modern plant breeding is no other than that used by peasants, since indigenous varieties serve to develop better performing varieties in both cases. In fact, when scientists seek a variety with a particular trait - heat tolerance for instance -, their first task is to go to a region where such a trait can surely be found - a semi-arid area or a desert in our example - and ask farmers about their varieties - here, more specifically about varieties withstanding extreme heat. The knowledge held by local communities about bioresources is therefore of great relevance to modern agricultural research. This is why, argues Suman Sahai, famers’ rights out to be placed at par with breeders’ rights in the sui generis legislation to come. Only in this way would farmers’ innovative share in the creation of new plant varieties be given due recognition and reward.

Furthermore, the use of indigenous technology and knowledge should be properly monitored and remunerated. This point is particularly salient now with the advent of biotechnologies based on the transformation of raw biological material. Suman Sahai suggests that a documentation of the location and uses of biological resources be compiled to create a National Bioresource Register. Such a register would serve several functions. First, it would be used as a databank by people seeking information about where to find what plant. Such bioprospecting would require a certain fee, paid into a Community Gene Fund. In the event of a commercial product being developed out of Indian raw material or technology, Sahai proposes a profit sharing principle. Secondly, the documentation can be used to stake the claims of communities over their resources. This claim can then serve to enforce the Prior Informed Consent rule laid down in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)and to demand royalty payments for the transfer of indigenous technology. Thirdly, such a system would allow community knowledge to remain within the public domain, thus anihilating any patent claim deposited on this knowledge. Fourthly, the information contained in the databank must be acknowledged by the governement channels and declared admissible in a court of law as evidence for prior knowledge. Since in the traditions of tribal peoples or island populations, knowledge is hardly ever written, oral tradition should be on equal terms with the written word in legal procedures.

As far as the legislation regarding the use of bioresources goes, Suman Sahai would like to see three laws emerge from the principles enunciated in the CBD : one in order to clearly establish ownership rights over the bioresources found in the Indian territory; another to formulate guidelines for Prior Informed Consent, defining the procedure to follow in order to obtain permission of access to genetic resources; a third to state the conditions of Material and Information Transfer, so that a share of the profit accrued from the commercial exploitation of genetic resources is channelled to communities.

Key words

intellectual property, traditional knowledge, biodiversity

, India, Asia


Biodiversité : le vivant en mouvement


This proposed comprehensive policy seeks to enact the CBD at the national level, and to build up the capacity to maintain and monitor the resources and knowledges of rural communities throughout India. Sahai indeed posits that it is in India’s best interest to regulate the proper and equitable use of indigenous technology, which can not be overlooked in an agricultural economy like that of India. The responsability of drafting adequate legislation to protect the genetic resources and the rights of farmers ultimately rests with the Indian governement.


See Sahai, Suman, 1996, Importance of Indigenous Knowledge in IPR System, in Economic and Poilitical Weekly, November 23.

Address of Gene Campaign : F-31, Green Park (Main), New Delhi 110 016, Ph.: 91/ 11 6965961; Fax: 6969716

Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.

Interview with Interviews with Suman Sahai, in New Delhi, February 1997.

This article also exists in French: Vers une reconnaissance de la symbiose entre ressources génétiques et savoir indigène en Inde.


Original text

legal mentions