Protecting the traditional knowledge of the poor nations

by Ramesh Jaura

Brussels, 16 May 2001 (IPS) -- The world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) no longer have to sit back and see their traditional knowledge, folklore and genetic resources robbed by global players in possession of the most modern know-how and financial muscle.

This is at least what Roberto Castelo, deputy director-general of the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), says.

Castelo pledged Tuesday on behalf of the WIPO, a member of the UN system, to assist the LDCs.

“This is part of our contribution to eradication of poverty,” Castelo told the Third UN Conference on LDCs (LDC-III), being held in Brussels 14-20 May.

The conference, which is being hosted by the European Union (EU), has attracted representatives of more than 120 governments.

Addressing the opening session Monday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “We are here to consider what kind of support” would be most useful to the people of the world’s 49 LDCs “and to make sure that they get it.”

WIPO’s pledge assumes significance against the backdrop that traditional knowledge has provided the basis for much of modern medicine and centuries of herbalist knowledge accumulated in the early writings of travellers, clerics and historians.

“The traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities has significant economic value in areas such as biotechnology - including medicine and agriculture - entertainment and education,” Castelo said in an interview with IPS.

It also provides a basis for the protection and conservation of biological diversity and the sharing of its benefits, he said.

The basis of WIPO’s aid to LDCs was laid by the Lisbon Declaration, adopted last February, following regional seminars and a high-level inter-regional roundtable conference for the LDCs to deliberate on the theme of ‘Innovation, and Knowledge Society.’

Explaining the rationale behind the move, Castelo said, the development of human resources had become a vital strategic component in the effort to modernise and use the intellectual property (IP) system effectively for economic, social and cultural development in the LDCs.

“Given the enormous structural problems they face in institution-building in the field of intellectual property, the LDCs require a special programme with the vision and resources to bring about a quantum leap in the state of their intellectual property systems,” he added.

WIPO is assisting LDCs through its Worldwide Academy, which has worked out specially tailored programmes, in acquiring the specialised knowledge and skills with which to take advantage of the intellectual property system.

The Academy plays a central role in providing teaching, training, as well as advisory and research services in intellectual property. It creates a forum for policy and decision-makers in the LDCs to debate the importance and implications of IP in the economic and social development of their countries.

WIPO also has launched a global information network, known as WIPONet, which would benefit all member states of the organisation, including the LDCs. Through the network, WIPO will provide the LDCs with office automation software including electronic data exchange services.

Explaining another aspect of the WIPO programme, Castelo said that small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the LDCs were often the driving force behind invention and innovation activities.

Their innovative and creative capacity was not always fully exploited, however, because many SMEs in the LDCs are not sufficiently informed, or are hesitant to seek protection for their inventions, brands and designs, and fail to take full advantage of the IP system.

“If left unprotected, a good invention or creation may be lost to larger competitors, which are better equipped to market the product or service at a more affordable price, leaving the original inventor or creator without any financial reward,” argued Castelo.

Adequate protection of a company’s IP is therefore a factor in deterring potential infringements and in transforming ideas into business assets with a real market value.

WIPO’s activities for the benefit of SME’s in the LDCs will be guided by the need to look at the practical concerns and challenges faced by the SMEs.

Trademarks, industrial designs and geographical indications will be portrayed as tools with which to enhance an enterprise’s marketing strategy, including the need to market access, market segmentation and product differentiation.

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