Protecting traditional knowledge: a grassroots perspective

Author:Catherine Jewell
Position:Communications Division, WIPO
SUMMARY

Lucy Mulenkei is a member of the Maasai people of Kenya and has been working with Maasai pastoralists for many years, first as a government official, then as a journalist, and for the past 18 years as Executive Director of the Indigenous Information Network. In her current role she works with indigenous communities across Kenya and the East African region to ensure they have the information they... (see full summary)

 
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Can you tell us about your work with indigenous communities?

Our aim is to ensure these communities have the information they need to move with the times. This involves empowering them to make informed decisions about the way they live and how their community develops. As soon as you explain why it is important for them to adapt the way they do certain things, they are extremely receptive. But of course this needs to be done in a way that does not interrupt their core cultural values. When we meet with villagers the conversation inevitably touches on a bundle of issues, from environment, education and health to medicinal plants and traditional knowledge, including folklore like songs and dances. In the traditional context everything is interrelated. All cultures have positive and negative aspects. The aim is to maintain positive cultural practices but to give up the negative ones, especially when they no longer serve a community’s interests. Only by informing people and enabling them to make their own decisions is long-term change possible. The moment you try to impose changes on their culture you become a threat.

Why did you get involved in international negotiations on the protection of traditional knowledge?

I joined these discussions after seeing that there is a lot of interest around the world in protecting traditional knowledge. By being part of it, I am in touch with indigenous representatives from other regions who share similar concerns. And this helps us push the protection of traditional knowledge further up the political agenda.

The participation of indigenous representatives like me gives us an opportunity to influence and shape policies to address the needs and interests of our communities, which often go unseen. Although indigenous peoples are citizens of a country, generally speaking they have few opportunities to voice their concerns, engage with policymakers or even benefit from social programs. So having a place at these tables is very important.

Why is it important to protect traditional knowledge?

First, it is a question of identity. People everywhere, even in Europe and the United States, have traditions that identify them and where they come from. Similarly, each indigenous community has its own distinctive identity, even if they share similarities. In Kenya, for example, the Maasai and the Samburu, although related – they are cousins – are distinct. There are small differences, for example in the design of their...

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