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From WIPO to Vale do Ribeira and Back

Gabriela Balvedi Pimentel

Chapter I: Situating the research

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1Considering the research questions presented in the introduction, as well as the broader context in which this discussion is situated, the objective of this first chapter is to explain the rationale behind the selection of my field and interlocutors, as well as the methodological approach adopted.

1 Why research Vale do Ribeira and WIPO?

2This research has two main goals: (i) to understand how legal categories that concern indigenous peoples are created in both the international and local realms, namely the categories of intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledge and the category of indigenous knowledge itself; and (ii) to understand what the articulations between the conceptualization of these issues are in the international and local realms.

3To achieve these goals, I have analyzed both the discussions taking place at WIPO’s IGC and the framing of these categories in Vale do Ribeira. Selecting to analyze the IGC was quite easy: if I wanted to understand how states are negotiating the production of these new categories, a forum at the only international organization responsible for dealing with intellectual property issues was the place to be.

4The selection of the case of quilombola and caiçara communities in Vale do Ribeira, Brazil, however, needs to be better explained. This is a region characterized both by a high level of socio-biodiversity and by numerous socio-environmental conflicts. The region is home not only to the highest concentration of quilombola communities in the state of São Paulo but also to the largest preserved area of Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil (Associações Quilombolas do Vale do Ribeira e Instituto Socioambiental 2018).

5Due to this configuration, Vale do Ribeira has attracted the attention of a wide variety of researchers, from biologists to social scientists. Substantive research has been conducted in the region regarding agriculture and agroecological practices (Giordani et al. 2015; Saori 2018; Sempreviva Organização Feminista 2018), rural conflicts (Observatório dos Conflitos Rurais em São Paulo et al. 2017), development projects (Rougemont and Gómez 2011; Schattan P. Coelho and Favareto 2008) and conflicts related to the superposition of traditional communities’ territories and areas incorporated by state parks (Ferreira 2004).

  • 1 Other authors deploy the term bioprospecting (Hayden 2003). I have preferred to use biopiracy as it (...)

6Although the recent work published by Sempreviva Organização Feminista (SOF) (2018) engages with quilombola knowledge in the field of agroecology, it does not elaborate on the relationship between quilombola communities and their knowledges. My research strives to contribute in that sense, shedding light on how members of quilombola and caiçara communities conceptualize their knowledge. Furthermore, it aims to understand how they perceive the biopiracy of plants they have traditionally used and, in more general terms, the interest of researchers and companies in their knowledges. Biopiracy is understood as “the patenting of indigenous knowledge related to biodiversity” (Shiva 2007, 307).1

7The historic resistance in Vale do Ribeira, allied to local communities’ high level of politicization, was a key element for my decision to select it as the other place to conduct this research. The long-term debates and struggles around the identity of the region’s quilombola and caiçara communities demonstrate a long process of reflection about the meaning of the occupation of their territory, their traditions and practices, as well as the context that surrounds them.

8Having already strongly mobilized around issues of identity and rights, my interlocutors had insightful positions on what indigenous knowledge means to them, as well as on their relationship with their knowledge and the tools considered appropriate for its protection. Considering these factors and the equally important fact that plants used traditionally by these communities have been the object of biopiracy initiatives, this case offered a promising avenue to answer my research question.

9Unlike other authors, who have focused on one specific biogenetic resource (Finger and Schuler 2004), I have opted to focus on a group of communities in one particular region. I consider this the best approach to answer my research question, because my interest lies specifically in understanding how the concept of indigenous knowledges and protection over these knowledges are constructed in a specific group of communities. Not having a clear set of communities at the center of my analysis would, therefore, render it prohibitively complex to answer my research question.

10As already argued in detail in the introduction, the subject of intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledges involves disputes with high political relevance, and can be placed in a trend towards the reduction of domains of cultural life to alienable rights, as well as towards the transfer of political and social issues to the judicial realm (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009). In this context, having as interlocutors politicized quilombola and caiçara communities was of the utmost interest, as it allowed the discussion to surpass the rights discourse and reach the deep political issues at stake.

2 Methodological considerations: an approach from the ethnography of global connections

11Considering the context of my two fieldwork sites and being guided by the research questions identified above, in this work I intend to tell a story of connections and disconnections. With the intention to produce an ethnography of global connections (Tsing 2011), I will analyze the process of creating these categories in the local and international realms. As I am looking for points of articulation of these categories in different scales, conducting fieldwork in two sites (WIPO’s IGC and Vale do Ribeira’s quilombola and caiçara communities) was essential to satisfactorily answer my research questions. A multi-sited ethnography allowed me to access data on how the concept of indigenous knowledge and protection of indigenous knowledge, which can be framed in terms of intellectual property rights, are built in each of these contexts. Furthermore, this approach enabled me to analyze the connections and disconnections between them, to develop an understanding of if and how these sites interact.

12A multi-sited ethnography should not be understood as a type of controlled comparison, nor is it a mere addition of perspectives (Marcus 1995); it is not the simple addition to the analysis of two different sites. In fact, this approach directs the researcher to look at the contingency of encounters (Tsing 2011). It recognizes that capitalism, science and politics are all dependent on global connections, and privileges attention to the messy and surprising features of such encounters (Tsing 2011). As Tsing teaches, “all human cultures are shaped and transformed in long histories of regional-to-global networks of power, trade and meaning” (2011, 3). This, I will argue, is no less true for WIPO than it is for Vale do Ribeira.

13The approach of an ethnography of global connection is key because the development of the discussion around intellectual property and indigenous knowledge in a forum like WIPO is not self-evident, nor is it self-explanatory why this became a theme for discussion at Vale do Ribeira. An ethnography of global connection can give us the elements to understand such an unexpected encounter. This will be further developed throughout the thesis. For now, we have reached the time to discuss my entrance into both research sites, as well as the methodological toolbox used to develop this work.

14My entrance in Vale do Ribeira and WIPO was mediated by people who are active members of these communities: at WIPO, by a representative of an NGO which has a seat at the IGC; at Vale do Ribeira, by a quilombola leader. In the next lines, I will discuss in further detail how these processes occurred.

2.1 Entering Vale do Ribeira

  • 2 I first met Neire at a conference on Feminist Solidarity Economy in Geneva. The conference “Bubblin (...)

15My entrance into Vale do Ribeira was made possible because a quilombola leader of the community Ribeirão Grande, Neire,2 accepted to receive me in her house and to help me contact people from other communities. Later on, she invited me to participate in the regional meeting of the National Coordination for the Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (CONAQ, in the Brazilian acronym). This was a unique opportunity to be in contact with leaders from many different quilombola communities of Vale do Ribeira and had a great influence on my research, because it allowed me to meet people I would otherwise not have access to.

16My presence in the field was directly linked to Neire’s, as I was seen as her guest. This meant that it was easier for me to enter some communities, with the challenges and advantages this might pose. On the one hand, it may have influenced the willingness of people to talk to me, as well as the content of what they have shared. On the other hand, people were more trustful since with me being seen as an ally of a quilombola leader, they were reassured that I would not be a threat to the community.

17The CONAQ meeting happened in a quilombola community called Ivaporunduva. Neire and I arrived there nearly a week before the meeting, in order to help with the organization and the articulation with other communities of the region. As she explained, we would have to visit some communities to make sure they would come, and in this way, I would be able to meet other quilombola communities and leaders and conduct interviews.

18We left Ribeirão Grande around noon and reached Eldorado, the municipality in which Quilombo Ivaporunduva is located, by the end of the afternoon. Neire had planned that we would be able to sleep at the Parochial House and continue our journey to Ivaporunduva on the next day (a 40 kilometers bumpy dirt road still separated us from the quilombo). As the priest was not there, we decided to resume the journey that same day. We had just started to drive between the endless monoculture banana plantations when a storm began. After a tense drive, we finally reached our destination. Ivaporunduva is arranged as a small village, with its own church, dating from the colonial period, as well as a large space for community meetings. The community has a special lodge to receive tourists, in which the CONAQ event was going to take place.

19Ivaporunduva was the first quilombola community to be recognized by the Brazilian state in Vale do Ribeira. The community is strongly organized politically. As I had done in Ribeirão Grande, when in Ivaporunduva I continued to talk to people, tell them about my research and, when someone agreed to participate in an interview, proceed with that. I had already had a recorded conversation with two older community leaders, the parents of the woman in whose house I was staying, when another quilombola leader and member of CONAQ, Ulisses, asked to talk to me and to the photographer who was hosted in the same house.

20Ulisses told us that for us to conduct interviews (in my case) and take pictures (the photographer’s case), we needed to pass through an evaluation proceeding conducted by the community. Since they had had many experiences with misappropriation of their knowledge and image, they had decided to develop a self-protection mechanism: a protocol for research. Any interested researcher should send a research project to the community, which would be evaluated in their assembly to decide whether or not they would like to participate in the project.

21This talk provided at once an exciting finding and an enormous discomfort: while I had just bumped into an extremely relevant element for my research (in that case, misappropriation of knowledge had led to the production of protocols!), I also felt that I had entered that field in a wrongful way. I felt as if I had tried to pass over the community’s organization, that I did not take them as seriously as I should (would I not inform myself about the existence of research protocols if I was doing this research in an international organization?).

22This feeling of discomfort passed as in the next days I helped the organization of CONAQ’s meeting, which took place on the weekend of January 25 and 26, 2019. From the moment I was giving something back to the organization of quilombolas in the State of São Paulo, I felt my presence was made legitimate not only for them but also for myself. By the end of the week, the Ivaporunduva leader who had talked to me accepted to give me an interview, not in his position as a leader of Ivaporunduva (as it was not feasible for the assembly to meet and deliberate while I was still there), but in his position as CONAQ’s lawyer.

23Fortunately, I have also encountered research protocols when talking to many other community leaders, both quilombolas and caiçaras. While in some of these cases the protocol was “waived” because the communities considered that having the support of the Ribeirão Grande quilombola leader sufficed, I was also not able to talk to one quilombola leader because his community decided that participating in my research was not a priority for them at that moment. The subject of these research protocols, which bring important insights to this analysis, will be discussed in detail in Chapter V, Section 1.5.

24In all of these cases, I was faced with demands on how I would return my research to the community. The agreement reached with all is that I will send them both the complete text in English and a summary in Portuguese. Additionally, I will do a presentation about my research once I am able to go back to Vale do Ribeira.

2.2 Entering WIPO

25As mentioned before, my entrance into WIPO’s IGC was made possible by a representative of an NGO in Geneva, whom I had met during a side-event of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) in July 2018. Having explained my research interests to him, he promptly invited me to participate in IGC 37, which happened in August that year. I have participated in IGCs 37 to 39 through accreditation with this NGO. In exchange, I shared with them my notes on the sessions and helped with the editing of a memo on the Indigenous Panel of IGC 38.

26My presence at WIPO was often linked to that of the NGO that facilitated my participation in the forum. In this sense, my presence was accepted in one of the Indigenous Caucus’ private meetings. A condition for my participation in the forum was that I could take notes, but not request to speak. I had understood the decision about my participation had been taken collectively at a previous meeting in which I did not participate, and therefore that it was clear for all participants why I was there. This proved, nevertheless, not to be the case. Some of the Indigenous Caucus members had not understood that I was a researcher, but actually that I was a part of the NGO, which caused some confusion. I asked the representative of the NGO to issue an email to all participants of the Indigenous Caucus, clarifying that I was not only helping them but also conducting my fieldwork at the forum. The situation was thus clarified, but not before some tension was created. Some of the participants of the Indigenous Caucus, not without reason, were unhappy with the unclear way my presence at their meeting was introduced. After this clarification, I believe I was seen more independently by other participants of the forum. Nevertheless, I decided not to participate in other meetings of the Indigenous Caucus after that and not to use the notes I had taken at the meeting as a direct material for my thesis.

27I have agreed to share the results of my research with the Indigenous Caucus and with Docip, a key NGO that has been helping with the documentation and facilitation of participation of indigenous peoples in international fora. I will share the final written file of this research with them and, in this way, the paper can be stored at their digital library and will be opened for access.

2.3 Participant observation

28Participant observation was a key tool for my research. At WIPO, a political forum which has very well-defined procedural rules, observation was essential to better understand protocols and power dynamics at play. To clarify how the process works, it was essential to carefully study what was both said and not said in the room, the choice of specific words, as well as who was there and who was not in the meeting. Even though important moments of negotiations are normally held “in the corridors”, a close analysis of the room also provided insightful clues to the alliances that are formed, and the different discourses being produced.

29At Vale do Ribeira, observation also played a key role. I paid special attention to practices and spaces of interaction, as the concept of indigenous knowledges encompasses an infinite diversity of knowledges and activities. Furthermore, I also paid attention to the boundaries being established both within and around the communities. As mentioned above, I actively participated in activities in both fields and have committed to sharing the results of my research with my interlocutors.

30This research has been inspired by the teachings of participatory action research, even if it cannot be argued that it adheres completely to this practice due to the limited period I have spent in the field. Nevertheless, I have actively participated in activities in both fields and have committed to restituting this work both to caiçaras and quilombolas at Vale do Ribeira, as well as to the Indigenous Caucus, as I understand there is an “obligation to return this knowledge systematically to the communities” (Fals-Borda 1987, 344).

2.4 Interviewing interlocutors in Vale do Ribeira and WIPO

31Aiming to understand how concepts are coined in an international political forum, as well as in a politicized traditional community, semi-structured in-depth interviews were a key methodological tool. In-depth interviews were the best way to allow me to access information on interlocutors’ perceptions and narratives, to understand how concepts are being framed. The selection of my interlocutors was made through snowball sampling.

Interlocutors at Vale do Ribeira

32At Vale do Ribeira, I interviewed mainly quilombola and caiçara leaders, as well as some other actors that were connected to the bioprospecting or patenting cases that I investigated. With these interviews, I aimed at unpacking ideas of what constitutes indigenous knowledges, and how they are produced, transmitted and transformed. Furthermore, I have tried to understand how the link to a specific identity is made (if it is), and what makes it distinctive: in other words, how a local community understands its own knowledge.

  • 3 See Chapter V, Section 1.1.

33In total, I conducted eleven interviews: six with quilombola leaders, one with two caiçara leaders, one with a researcher connected to the Natura case,3 and two with lawyers that offered juridical assistance to the quilombolas in different cases. All interviews were conducted in Portuguese. For anonymity purposes, I have changed the name of all interlocutors interviewed. Nevertheless, the names of interlocutors that made interventions during WIPO’s IGC are mentioned when these interventions are available on webcasting or in written reports, as they constitute public information. Information about each interview is included in Table 1.

Table 1. Interlocutors at Vale do Ribeira

  • 4 Benzimento is a healing technique in traditional medicine.
  • 5 A garrafada is a general term for traditional medicines which are made inside a bottle (garrafa in (...)
  • 6 In Portuguese educador popular, as a reference to the use of a pedagogical methodology inspired by (...)


Short biography

Characteristics of the interview


Francisco is a leader at Quilombo Pedro Cubas. His livelihood is based on subsistence farming. Francisco is one of the most politically active members of Pedro Cubas. He has a wide knowledge of medicinal plants and has tried to teach the community’s children about them.

In-person, during CONAQ State meeting.


Aurelio is a leader of Quilombo São Pedro. He lives off subsistence farming and was active in advocating for the recognition of the Quilombola Agricole System as Brazilian intangible heritage. Aurelio affirmed that he conducts some healing activities with traditional medicine, e.g. benzimento4 and garrafadas.5

In-person, during CONAQ State meeting.


Denis is a caiçara leader from Barra do Ribeira, in the region of Juréia. He has served as a member of the National Sustainable Development Commission for Traditional Communities and Peoples (CNPCT) and worked as a popular educator6 at the now-defunct Juréia Caiçara School. He practices fishing and has worked as an environmental guide at the community.

In-person, at Denis’ house in Barra do Ribeira. Interview conducted simultaneously with Denis and Fernanda.


Fernanda is a caiçara leader from Peruíbe, in the region of Juréia. She is a pedagogue and has also worked as an environmental guide in the community. Fernanda is active in the feminist movement.

In-person, at Denis’ house in Barra do Ribeira.

Dr. Michelle

Michelle, referred to by all my interlocutors as “Dr. Michelle” (due to her position as a lawyer), is a nun and legal advisor at a non-governmental institution linked to the Catholic Church, dealing with a wide range of subjects, such as indigenous peoples and local communities rights.

In-person, at her office in São Paulo

Dr. Susana

Susana, referred to by all my interlocutors as “Dr. Susana” (due to her position as a lawyer), is a nun and legal advisor at EAACONE. She has been actively advising quilombola communities since she was transferred to a diocese at Vale do Ribeira, in the 1980s.

In-person, at EAACONE’s office


José lives on a small farm in the municipality of Barra do Turvo, Vale do Ribeira. His livelihood is based on subsistence agriculture and the supply of dried plants to the Brazilian cosmetic company Natura. José is well-known in the region for producing garrafadas and has a wide knowledge of the medicinal use of the region’s plants. José does not identify as a quilombola.

By phone. I have visited José’s farm and we had an informal conversation there. Although we had initially scheduled an in-person interview, it had to be changed to a phone interview due to medical reasons


Neire is a leader from Quilombo Ribeirão Grande. She is also a member of the National and State Coordination of CONAQ. Her livelihood is based on subsistence agriculture. Neire is part of the feminist movement and it was through this engagement that we met during a conference in Geneva. Neire accompanied me throughout my fieldwork in Vale do Ribeira.

In-person, on the way from Ribeirão Grande to Ivaporunduva

Prof. Livio

Researcher and ethnobotany professor at the agricultural department of Paulista State University (Unesp), Prof. Livio had conducted research in Vale do Ribeira before he became engaged with Natura.

By phone


Orlando is a leader from Quilombo Porto Velho. He was the president of the community’s association at the time of the Natura case. He mentioned having had the chance to visit other traditional communities throughout Brazil.

By phone

Mirana and Rodrigo

Mirana and Rodrigo are older leaders of Quilombo Ivaporunduva. They are the parents of Claudia, at whose house I stayed during the part of my fieldwork at Ivaporunduva. Mirana was the president of the community’s association when their land received the quilombola land title. Rodrigo played a key role in the creation of MOAB and has also reported having traveled to meet other traditional communities in Brazil.

In-person, at their house in Quilombo Ivaporunduva


Ulisses is a leader from Quilombo Ivaporunduva and is part of the National Coordination of CONAQ, as well as a member of their lawyers’ collective. Ulisses is a lawyer and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Curitiba, Paraná. He has participated in several international meetings, amongst them the negotiations for the CBD.

In-person, during CONAQ State meeting

Interlocutors at WIPO

34At WIPO, I managed to conduct four interviews with different actors, as detailed below in Table 2. Through these interviews, I aimed at getting a deeper understanding of the working of the IGC, as well as of the perspectives of different actors on the issues at stake in the forum. I have not attributed names for these interlocutors as, being located in an international forum, giving them a name could make it easier to disclose their nationality and/or identity.

Table 2. Interlocutors at WIPO


Short biography

Characteristics of the interview

NGO representative

This is the NGO representative that supported my participation in WIPO’s IGC. He has participated in the IGC since 2012, although he has not attended all sessions. He is a researcher in history and political discourse of indigenous movements.

In-person, at a cafe in Geneva

Indigenous representative

A lawyer of indigenous origin, this representative focused on the issues of immaterial heritage and intellectual property and created an indigenous institute for intellectual property. She has participated in the negotiations for the CBD and has been following the discussions at the IGC since the beginning of the 2000s but did not come back to the forum after IGC 36. She is finishing her PhD and a part of her analysis is focused on the IGC.

By phone

Delegate of a developing country

This delegate from a developing country works for the mission to the WTO and WIPO. He became a diplomat in 2009 when his interest in intellectual property rights began. He came to the mission in Geneva in 2016, when he started to follow the IGC discussions. He became familiar with the subject of indigenous knowledge only at that time.

In-person, at his office in Geneva

Staff member of WIPO’s Department for Traditional Knowledge and Global Challenges

This person has worked for WIPO for over twenty years. In his former position, he participated in all assemblies and discussions at WIPO. Through this position, he was involved in discussions around the organization’s legal questions. He joined the Department for Traditional Knowledge and Global Challenges at the end of 2016, in a leadership position.

In-person, at his office in Geneva

2.5 Additional sources

35 In addition to participant observation and in-depth interviews, a varied array of additional sources has informed this work. In the case of WIPO, the analysis of official documents was essential to supplement and better understand the discussion during sessions 37 to 39. Among these documents, I have relied on minutes of previous meetings, studies prepared by WIPO and draft articles for each of the three instruments prepared by the Secretariat, among others.

36 In the case of Vale do Ribeira, minutes of meetings, draft contracts and news articles were central to reconstructing the stories of knowledge misappropriation and complement the information provided by interlocutors during the interviews.

2.6. Limitations

37As mentioned above, having the help of both the NGO representative and the quilombola leader may have influenced what interlocutors decided to talk or not talk about in the interviews. Furthermore, an important limitation may be that I have mainly interviewed community leaders in the context of Vale do Ribeira.

38On the one hand, this was a helpful strategy as these individuals were already more familiarized with the themes of this research, which are often perceived as extremely technical and hard to comprehend. Additionally, being community leaders, they were often the ones involved in the discussion of similar issues in other fora, as well as in the discussions around bioprospecting initiatives that took place in their territories. On the other hand, having conducted in-depth interviews only with community leaders may have emphasized the importance of the political aspects in this work.


1 Other authors deploy the term bioprospecting (Hayden 2003). I have preferred to use biopiracy as it “reflects the commodification and privatization paradigm, which only protects the rights of those who appropriate people’s common resources and turn them into commodities” (Shiva 2007, 313).

2 I first met Neire at a conference on Feminist Solidarity Economy in Geneva. The conference “Bubbling Up Solidarities” took place at the Graduate Institute between May 03 and 04, 2018. I was engaged at the conference and had direct contact with Neire, as I was one of the students responsible for translating the content of the conference to her.

3 See Chapter V, Section 1.1.

4 Benzimento is a healing technique in traditional medicine.

5 A garrafada is a general term for traditional medicines which are made inside a bottle (garrafa in Portuguese). Garrafadas may involve a mixture of different types of plants, normally with alcohol. There are specificities to each garrafada: some should be used as a cream, some taken orally, while others are used in baths.

6 In Portuguese educador popular, as a reference to the use of a pedagogical methodology inspired by Paulo Freire’s teachings (Freire 2017).


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