Biocultural Heritage

Promoting resilient farming systems and local economies

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WIPO – World Intellectual Property Organisation

wipo logoThe World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) aims to promote intellectual property rights (IPRs) worldwide. In 2000, it established an inter-governmental committee to address IPR issues relating to genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore, including how to protect traditional knowledge from misappropriation and how to share benefits from commercialisation equitably.

Drivers of change

We are facing a double extinction crisis - biological and cultural - as a result of prevailing development models and globalization.

The FAO estimates we have lost three quarters of all crop genetic resources in the past 100 years. Modern farming, based on just a few species and varieties, has spread across the globe, weakening agriculture’s genetic basis and our capacity to adapt to changing climates. Yet policymakers often see traditional farming systems rich in genetic diversity as a hindrance to economic growth.

An evolving concept

Biocultural heritage, as a concept, has evolved in response to traditional knowledge policies that have tended only to protect the intellectual component of knowledge systems, and not the equally crucial biological, cultural and landscape components. It reflects indigenous communities’ holistic worldview, where everything is inter-dependent and inter-connected.

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UNESCO – the United Nations educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

UNESCO has developed a number of international conventions relating to the protection of cultural and intellectual heritage. The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came into force in April 2006, aims to safeguard oral traditions and expressions, including language, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, and knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. However, it focuses only on intangible heritage.

UN Human Rights Agreements

A number of human rights conventions also provide useful instruments for protecting indigenous peoples’ rights, but in many cases they have not been ratified or fully implemented by governments. Furthermore, existing human rights legislation is mainly directed at individual rights. Perhaps the most important are:

Regional laws on traditional knowledge and access to genetic resources

Some regions, such as Africa and the Andean Community, have introduced regional laws to protect traditional knowledge and genetic resources. Where these resources are shared between countries, the laws promote common standards so that those seeking access can’t just go to the country with the lowest requirements. Regional laws also provide model legislation that can guide countries developing national laws, eg. the African Model Law.

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