18 May 2021

Local and Global Narratives around Indigenous Knowledge and Its Protection

Vale do Ribeira, the largest reserve of Atlantic Forest in Brazil, is home to quilombola and caiçara communities. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is responsible for regulating intellectual property rights. What can possibly connect these places? In both, narratives around the meaning of indigenous knowledge and its protection are being constructed and negotiated. They are at the heart of Gabriela Balvedi Pimentel’s master dissertation. Her findings, which she details in this interview, won her the 2020 Arditi Prize in International Relations and are now published in open access as part of the Graduate Institute ePapers, thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

When I arrived in Geneva to pursue my master studies, I wanted to find a research topic that would allow me to understand developments in global capitalism and their impacts on indigenous peoples’ rights and livelihoods. Two encounters made this topic become more concrete. During a session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), I got to know that an international legislation to regulate intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledge was being negotiated at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). A few weeks later, during a seminar at the Graduate Institute, I met a quilombola leader who shared with me some problems they were facing at Vale do Ribeira regarding biopiracy and misappropriation of indigenous knowledge. I found this a fascinating opportunity to understand how the discussion about indigenous knowledge and its protection unfolds in very different scenarios, and what the connections and disconnections of the narratives constructed in the international and local spheres are.

Can you describe your research questions more precisely?

My thesis aimed at understanding how the concepts of indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights over it are built in Vale do Ribeira and WIPO, as well as the points of articulation between them. In more conceptual terms, it looked at the process of creation of a legal category that concerns indigenous and local peoples at the international realm and its points of articulation with the corresponding category in the local realm.

What methodology did you use to carry out this study? 

The idea of movement given by the title, From WIPO to Vale do Ribeira and Back, is not an accident. The study was designed to allow for understanding connections and disconnections between these two fields, aiming to span geographic, social and political scales. I conducted multi-sited ethnography and participant observation, as well as semi-structured in-depth interviews, which were key tools for the research. At WIPO, I was able to follow the 37th to 39th sessions of its Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) as I was assisting an NGO that participated in the negotiations. At Vale do Ribeira, I participated in several community meetings, including the regional meeting of the National Coordination for the Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (CONAQ, in the Brazilian acronym). I conducted 16 interviews with community leaders, academics, lawyers, and representatives of indigenous peoples, NGOs and member states. 

What are your main findings?

The outcomes of the creation of categories of indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledge in international legislation are uncertain. Nevertheless, I argue that the possibilities and limitations unleashed by these categories can be better understood if we consider the encounters and alliances that paved the way for their creation.

In this sense, the main research findings can be divided in two parts. The first refers to findings concerning the understanding of indigenous knowledge in the two spheres. The characteristics evoked by indigenous peoples and local communities to characterise indigenous knowledge at WIPO are very similar to those mentioned by quilombola and caiçara communities in Vale do Ribeira. Some characteristics advocated by member states, however, did not find echo in the understanding of Vale do Ribeira’s communities. One example is the idea that a temporal criterion should be applied to characterise indigenous knowledge, i.e., knowledge would only be considered to be indigenous if it exists for a certain period of time (e.g., fifty years or five generations). Another example is the division made at WIPO between traditional knowledge stricto sensu, traditional knowledge associated to genetic resources and traditional cultural expressions. I have found that, while this reflects the logic of the intellectual property system, communities from Vale do Ribeira do not agree with it. They argue that their knowledge system cannot be divided into separate categories.

The second part refers to narratives of protection of indigenous knowledge. By comparing the cases in Vale do Ribeira and WIPO, I found that those narratives are deeply linked to the contexts in which they are constructed. The narrative of protection of indigenous knowledge through intellectual property, evoked at WIPO, relies on unstable and unequal alliances between indigenous peoples’ representatives and member states’ delegates. In Vale, the idea of protecting traditional knowledge, just like the decision to organise politically around identity markers, emerges as a response to historical dispossession. In this context, decisions around traditional knowledge are taken collectively, as traditional knowledge emerges from collective production and is collectively owned. Vale do Ribeira communities’ conception of protection is thus deeply rooted in collective deliberation. It is also informed by experiences of other traditional communities with whom they articulate politically. The response that results from this context is not of protection through intellectual property rights, but of collective decision about knowledge sharing through community protocols. The narrative of protection of traditional knowledge through intellectual property rights is thus only one possible narrative, among many. The case of Vale do Ribeira’s communities demonstrates that other narratives of protections, rooted in collective processes, also exist. 

What are you doing now in your “post-master” life?

I have recently moved to Brasília and, since mid 2020, I have been working on the topic of indigenous peoples’ rights at the Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Branch of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Among other activities, our team developed publications on indigenous women, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on indigenous peoples, as well as on indigenous peoples’ economic and social rights

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This ePaper was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Gabriela Balvedi Pimentel’s master dissertation in Anthropology and Sociology (supervisor: Shaila Seshia Galvin), which won the 2020 Arditi Prize in International Relations.

Full citation of the ePaper:
Balvedi Pimentel, Gabriela. From WIPO to Vale do Ribeira and Back: Global (Dis)connections, Indigenous Knowledges and Narratives of Protection. Graduate Institute ePaper 36. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2021.

Interview edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image from