Traditional Knowledge, Intellectual Property and Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing

Das Chácobo Ethnobotanik Team

Although the ratification of the "Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Fair and Equitable Participation in the Benefits from their Use in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)" ( has brought a boost to the recognition of the rights of indigenous and local communities, their participation in ethnobiology research often is still fragmentary. In this scenario, Covid-19 might be an incentive to change that and give local participants the role they deserve - to not only be participants, but investigators, and co-authors. Rather than sending (mostly) Western students and researchers around the globe, Covid-19 might finally force the ethnobiology community to focus on training local community researchers, so that they can conduct interviews in their own communities, and to fully participate in data analysis and publication.


The Nagoya Protocol clearly assigns the property rights of traditional knowledge to the respective knowledge holders. The main objective of the protocol is "the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and technologies, and by appropriate funding, thereby contributing to the conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of its components ", including that "traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources held by indigenous and local communities is accessed with the prior and informed consent or approval and involvement of these indigenous and local communities and that mutually agreed terms have been established. Any community work is performed under the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Equitable distribution of benefits from their use, and that the right of use and ownership of any traditional knowledge of all informants remains with them, and that any use of the information except for scientific publication, requires the additional consent of the traditional owners, and consensus on access to benefits derived possibly later use.


After implementation of the CBD, many research institutions around the globe set up “Internal Review Boards (IRB)” to screen research proposals involving human “subjects.” However, based on the stipulations of the Nagoya Protocol, a simple “ethics approval” by a researcher’s IRB is not sufficient to allow publication. Many journals do, in fact, require in addition written evidence that local law, as well as community regulations were followed. In the former case, a research permit number, or an indication which entity granted the permit to do research, should be provided. In case of the latter, an indication of how permits from local and indigenous communities or participants were obtained should be included.


Normally, Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is required for any research. The concept of FPIC is, however, problematic for two reasons: On the one hand, many journals are not content with oral FPIC, as practiced, especially in ethnobiological studies. On the other hand, in many research settings, a request for written FPIC creates distrust among participants, because signing papers is simply not common, and the content of a FPIC disclosure might be hard to understand. Under such circumstances, the best choice for researchers is to provide a statement on what kind of FPIC they obtained, and to state if they followed a specific code of ethics. For ethnobiological research, the current standard is the International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics. It should be noted that under the Nagoya Protocol, FPIC does not only refer to consent from community leaders, but from each individual participant in the research. In addition, it does have to include arrangements about benefit sharing, as well as recognition of the intellectual property rights of the respective participants and their communities.


In globalized science, the knowledge that our counterparts share with us must be protected so that it cannot be appropriated by actors who did not participate in the original study, for both scientific and commercial purposes, and the benefits of the research must include the repatriation of the data obtained. Covid-19 could be a trigger to finally achieve this.


Ethnobiologists should take their stake through proactive steps for shaping the future, including: a) Highlighting the possible contributions of local communities and their less understood wild and cultivated natural foods and eco-pharmacological environments for resilience of local and global food and health systems; b) airing voices of disadvantaged communities for equitable rights in benefit sharing; c) designing customized action frameworks for capacity building for local stakeholders; and, d) partnering for ethnobiology informatics platforms for informed decision making. Although many of these actions might be deemed overly time-consuming and an unnecessary drain on scarce resources, they remain necessary contributions for co-designing the future of changing socio-cultural environments and human relationships to natural resources in the wake of the post-Covid-19 pandemic.


The Chácobo Ethnobotany Project is the world's first effort to train local colleagues in ethnobotanical survey and plant collection techniques so that they can document their own plant-use traditions without outside influence.


Bolivia has a rich diversity of indigenous cultures with at least thirty tribes among eleven language groups. However, there are few detailed studies of indigenous peoples' use of plants and resources, and authorities still ignore their knowledge of forest management. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) had a strong influence in changing the culture of many tribes in Bolivia, including the Chácobo. The SIL worked with Chácobo communities from 1953 to 1980, resulting in a profound change in lifestyle and a permanent process of acculturation. Brian Boom (Boom 1987) led the first ethnobotanical study of Chácobo from 1983-1984 and documented her knowledge after almost 30 years in this cultural shift. Since then, essentially nothing has been published about Chacobo ethnobotanical knowledge.


The Chácobo belong to the Panoic language group, which includes about twelve tribes (Chácobo, Pacahuara, Matis, Matses, Yaminahua and others). In the late 1890s, the Chácobo lived as semi-nomadic hunters and cassava and maize farmers, probably in two groups, one of six and one of four families, in north-west Bolivia, roughly between Lake Roguagnado and the Mamore River, south of Bolivia their present one territory. During the rubber boom of the early 1900s, more aggressive tribes forced them to move north, where they were threatened by rubber tappers, which also brought disease and epidemics to the tribe. However, the Chácobo managed to avoid most outside influences while other tribes in the region were hunted like animals to enslave in rubber stations. The Chácobo did not have their first permanent contact with the outside world until 1953 with people from the Tribes Missions, and in 1954 the Bolivian government established an agency about 15 km from the current location of Puerto Limones. Missionary linguist Gilbert Prost came under the auspices of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in 1955. According to Prost, four Chácobo groups of about 200 people lived between the Benicito and Yata rivers (Boom 1987). Prost and his wife lived with the Chácobo until 1980. In addition to translating the New Testament into Chácobo, they made some observations on cultural and linguistic practices. In 1964, Prost managed to buy an area in the north of the Chácobo ancestral lands and form the community of Alto Ivon, and most of the remaining population moved there. In 1965, the Bolivian government finally allotted 43,000 hectares of land to the Chácobo, although this area represented less than 10% of their original territory. The influence of Prost caused a profound cultural change among the Chácobo, including the abandonment of traditional costumes and dances in 1969. Currently, the population of the Chácobo community numbers about 500 people, with Alto Ivon as the largest settlement and Tokyo, Motacuzal, Siete Almendros, and other smaller communities along the Yata River. The tribe's current territory covers 450,000 hectares, roughly the original extent of the tribe's ancestral lands. The municipality of Alto Ivon, the center of the Chácobo territory, is located about 112 km south of Riberalta on the River Ivon, a tributary of the Beni. The altitude is about 200 m and can be classified as an Amazon rainforest. Rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) and Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) are plentiful. The average annual temperature is 26.8 °C, with an average annual rainfall of 1.56 mm, based on observations in Riberalta. A pronounced dry season lasts from June to November. The Chácobo used to be led by a cacique. Today there are two indigenous organizations: the Capitanía Mayor Chácobo, closely linked to the Evangelists, and the Chácobo-Pacahuara Association, recognized by the Central Indígena de la Región Amazónica de Bolivia (CIRABO), supported by the Central de Pueblos Indigenas del Beni (CPIB) and the Confederacion de Pueblos Indigenas de Bolivia (CIDOB).
The project investigates the current traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) on plant use of the Chacobo and Pacahuara in Beni, Bolivia and has three goals: 1) to discover and document current traditional plant knowledge through interviews and surveys, 2) to inventory the current flora of the region , and 3) to repatriate the acquired knowledge and previous data to the community.



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