Intellectual property and Samoa’s traditional knowledge

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Alexander Rheeney

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that a sub-regional intellectual property workshop convened at the Tanoa Tusitala Hotel concluded at the end of last week.

The workshop—which was facilitated by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour (MCIL) and hosted delegates from a few Pacific Island nations—was funded by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. 

A week earlier the Cook Islands and Samoa were featured in the new publication “ABS - Genetic Resources for Sustainable Development”, which was launched on the sidelines of the 14th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP14) in Sharma El Sheikh, Egypt. 

The publication had stories from across 27 different countries, which focused on how their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, have helped people by implementing the principles of the CBD Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

The Samoa case study focused on work by the Scientific Research Organization of Samoa (SROS)—in collaboration with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE)—researching Samoan medicinal plant materials to provide scientific evidence that they can help prevent certain illnesses.

And as I intimated earlier, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Samoa now finds itself at a crossroad—undertake more research through the work of the SROS, MNRE and various partners to find out the medicinal value of its flora and fauna—while MCIL and its local and international partners begin the groundwork to put in place a framework for an intellectual property regime that is best suited to Samoa and its people.

A lot of research work that organisations such as SROS and its partners have undertaken in recent years, have been done in consultation with the local communities in Samoa. The link between the Government of Samoa—represented by State entities such as SROS and international partners such as the United Nations—was confirmed when Tessa Tafua, a programme analyst at the environment and climate change unit at the UNDP Office in Apia, made reference to how Samoans see land and traditional knowledge as important parts of their lives. She was quoted in the same publication which was launched last week in Egypt.

“Samoa’s commitment to achieving its Sustainable Development Goals requires the involvement and contribution of its entire people. The way we engage with the people on the areas they prioritize drives the success of these SDGs.

The people of Samoa hold its land and traditional knowledge at the highest importance and will do anything to protect this knowledge and resources for the future generations. The Government of Samoa looks to formalize the process to protect the genetic resources of Samoa and its traditional uses,” she said.

Which brings us back to the work that the MCIL and its partners have begun on developing an intellectual property framework for Samoa. 

The MCIL-facilitated workshop last week had a particular focus on the private sector, as is confirmed by the Ministry’s C.E.O. and registrar, Pulotu Lyndon Chu Ling.

“The most important objective is to provide that knowledge and information to our business operators, in terms of the intellectual property concepts. 

“Because you understand there is very strong competition in our own region in the Pacific, in terms of the innovations and similar products that are produced by our people in the Pacific, and so in order for our businesspeople to meet that competition, they need to understand how they can take advantage of the intellectual property concept,” he said last week.

While we acknowledge the opportunities that lie ahead for Samoa’s private sector—in terms of protecting their innovative products and services—we also note the huge potential of traditional knowledge and what it can bring to the table for Samoans.

There is a growing movement to get global recognition and protection for traditional knowledge, genetic resources and traditional cultural expressions (folklore). 

Close to 20 years ago members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) agreed to set up an Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) according to the WIPO website.  In 2009 they agreed to develop an international legal instrument (or instruments) that would give traditional knowledge, genetic resources and traditional cultural expressions (folklore) effective protection. Such an instrument could range from a recommendation to WIPO members to a formal treaty that would bind countries choosing to ratify it.

According to the UN publication, Samoa’s terrestrial biodiversity consists of over 300 terrestrial species. The Samoan flora contains about 500 native flowering plants such as Piper graeffei, piperaceae and Diospyros samoensis, ebenaceae which are two of the most commonly used medicinal herbs. There are more than 200 species of ferns in 96 families and 298 genera which makes it the second largest diversity of native flora in tropical Polynesia. In total, 25% of terrestrial plant species are endemic to Samoa such as Psychotria bristolii, rubiaceae and Manilkara samoensis, sapotaceae.

Traditional knowledge associated with above God-given natural resources is yet to be harnessed, and Samoa can be thankful for having an organisation such as SROS, which is leading the way in research to enable the country to get the best of its resources.

What do you think? Have a wonderful Tuesday Samoa and God bless.   

© Samoa Observer 2016

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