Biopiracy and the Threat to Indigenous Knowledge

A conflict between western and indigenous forms of knowledge appears to be endemic in our current globalized world. Whereas, western knowledge has been divided into different disciplines, specialties, and subjects, indigenous knowledge is disseminated amongst the people possessing it and no one person is considered its ‘owner’ (Harry 2011). These communal, rather than individual, intellectual property rights have left the door open for the cooption of indigenous knowledge by multinational corporations (MNCs). Through biopiracy and the patenting of indigenous knowledge, the global “free” market has often established a form of biocolonialism in recent decades, instrumentalizing indigenous knowledge and local biodiversity for profit.

MNCs enter biologically diverse areas, a process dubbed bioprospecting, to seek out biodiversity and indigenous knowledge as resources that can then be used for future profits in pharmaceuticals, gene manipulation for food sources and other development (Delgado 2002; Ismail and Fakir 2004). Corporate success rates in these efforts increase greatly when they incorporate or are predicated on indigenous knowledge and guidance. Since at least the 1990s, MNCs have presented themselves to the international community as protectors of this valuable knowledge, claiming that if it were not for them, the information might otherwise be lost. Many indigenous groups have come to realize during this period they were being excluded from the vast economic benefits obtained from their knowledge (Ismail and Fakir 2004). In short, bioprospecting projects can quickly lead to biopiracy, defined as the appropriation of indigenous knowledge and biodiversity without due compensation to the native populations possessing it (Delgado 2002).

MNCs claim that since indigenous knowledge is communal, and not privately ‘owned,’ everyone is free to use it—indigenous and nonindigenous alike. But this is not how indigenous people view their traditional knowledge and resources. For them, the knowledge and resources are to be kept within the community and shared between generations. Unfortunately, existing laws protect those who obtain patent or intellectual property rights more readily than they assist original knowledge holders. MNCs are able to afford the cost of court battles and possess the knowledge and capacity to file for patent and intellectual property rights they deem necessary. This biocolonial form of neoliberalism has resulted in indigenous communities paradoxically losing control over their traditional forms of knowledge.

Neoliberalism and Biopiracy

Neoliberalism has led to globalized use of patent laws and the cooptation of indigenous information and intellectual property rights by MNCs that are not necessarily accountable to the state, but only to their shareholders (Pojman 2006). The pharmaceutical industry, particularly, has pressed to obtain TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) as a means by which to prevent indigenous communities from profiting from their own knowledge (Heywood 2002). These corporations often change minor elements of genetic codes or chemical formulas to strip indigenous communities of possible intellectual property rights claims, insisting thereby that their product is no longer related to its initial source. As Harry has observed: “At the core of the biocolonial process is the control, manipulation and ownership of life itself, and the ancient knowledge systems held by Indigenous peoples” (2011, 703). The problem stems both from the idea that native populations are simply caretakers of communal knowledge and that their territorial rights to the resources on their traditional lands need not be considered (Harry 2011). This concern is exacerbated by the inconsistent enforcement of indigenous rights throughout the world since individual nation states presently determine how indigenous rights are resolved within their territories.

There are numerous ways MNCs influence current trends to control patent and intellectual property laws. One mechanism by which such occurs is gene manipulation. Such efforts pose difficulties for indigenous peoples on multiple levels:

1) Scientists and the general public do not know the long-term effects on local environments and crops produced,

2) Indigenous groups are routinely not compensated for the knowledge they possessed that led to the development of these new genetically-modified organisms since companies stipulate they are different from the original resources obtained through bioprospecting, and

3) If local food systems are altered, that fact can affect the health and well-being of local indigenous communities.

This situation underscores Corntassel’s observation that, “Indigenous connections between well-being and food security/livelihoods are critical to the realization and practice of a sustainable self-determination” (2008, 118).

Gene manipulation can also lead to monocropping (monoculturing). The current trend to adopt such agricultural practices leads to ecological degradation and a loss of biodiversity, even as it disregards and erodes indigenous knowledge related to local, traditional crops. It is, however, very profitable for corporations that convince native communities to try new food staples created through genetic modification.

Counter-Hegemonic Possibilities

Given the power and resources of these multinational corporations, the question arises whether there is any recourse available by which to protect indigenous knowledge. One such entity is the international Convention on Biological Diversity (Convention on Biological Diversity, 1993) the main treaty that seeks to protect native populations’ intellectual property rights and includes “provisions to protect developing countries and indigenous people” (Zenobia and Fakir 2004, 177), but it often does not protect well against the more powerful TRIPS agreements. Capital is a very loud voice in today’s world and corporations that acquire formal patent and intellectual property rights are frequently able to drown out indigenous peoples’ voices.

It is important to understand the barriers that patent and intellectual property rights create for the poor of the world. Unfortunately, the production of knowledge is governed and legitimated by major western nations and this fact often disempowers indigenous peoples seeking to protect the legacy represented by their shared cultural understanding. Too often westerners consider such accumulated wisdom insignificant or primitive unless it is controlled by outsiders, such as MNCs, and produces wealth.

Although the battle for indigenous peoples’ rights in these scenarios has often proven unsuccessful to date, several communities have nonetheless successfully pressed efforts to contest these continuing MNC attempts at knowledge cooption. Nonetheless, non-indigenous firms need to make amends for the past exploitation of indigenous knowledge through some form of restitution.  This could include compensatory payments for past use or possibly offering a share of relevant patent–related profits. New, stronger laws need to be created to protect traditional knowledge and natural resources from firms desiring to use them to secure profits not shared with the native groups affected (Corntassel 2008).  Moreover, communal indigenous knowledge must be allowed to continue as a shared cultural practice between generations if it is to survive (Corntassel 2008). That is, it should not be circumscribed and overridden by legal forms alien to its origins and the understanding of the peoples possessing it. More broadly, and in order to ensure such treatment, indigenous peoples need to have their rights universally recognized and protected by international law (Harry 2011). It is conceivable to imagine that indigenous peoples could reclaim their rights utilizing current neoliberal practices—patents, property rights, etc.—that have kept them subjugated, or through some as yet unknown shifts in power structures, but that is surely uncertain. What is clear is that indigenous communities must be permitted to control and employ their traditional knowledge as they wish and not be exploited for profits by multinational corporations.


Corntassel, Jeff. 2008. “Toward Sustainable Self-Determination: Rethinking the Contemporary Indigenous-Rights Discourse.” Alternatives 33(1): 105-132.

Convention on Biological Diversity. 1993. Introduction to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Accessed September 1, 2015.

Delgado, Gian Carlo. 2002. “Biopiracy and Intellectual Property as the Basis for Biotechnology Development: The Case of Mexico.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 16 (2): 297-318.

Harry, Debra. 2011. “Biocolonialism and Indigenous Knowledge in United Nations Discourse.” Griffin Law Review 20(3): 702-728.

Heywood, M. 2002. Drug Access, Patents and Global Health: ‘Chaffed and Waxed Sufficient,’ Third World Quarterly 23(2): 217-31.Ismail, Zenobia and Tashil Fakir. 2004. “Trademarks or Trade Barriers? Indigenous Knowledge and the Flaws in the Global IPR System.” International Journal of Social Economics 31(January): 173-194.

Pojman, L. P. 2006. Terrorism, Human Rights, and the Case for World Government, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Ashleigh Breske picAshleigh Breske is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include indigenous rights, global governance, cultural tourism, and museum repatriations. She is currently working on the governance of repatriation and the international movement of cultural property. Ashleigh is currently serving as the managing editor for the Journal of Planning History. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Virginia Tech and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University.

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