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From WIPO to Vale do Ribeira and Back

Gabriela Balvedi Pimentel


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1In the introduction to this work, I have proposed to take a step back from calling what we are analyzing a right to protection of intellectual property over indigenous knowledge. Moving away from a rights discourse, I have aimed at putting in the center of the analysis the political issues at play when we discuss the creation of two legal categories that concern indigenous and local peoples: one for indigenous knowledge and one for the protection of indigenous knowledge.

2Using the approach of an ethnography of global connection, I have looked at how narratives around the meaning of these two concepts are built in the local and in the international arenas. Vale do Ribeira and WIPO are connected by the same discussion which, however, has different outcomes. Many connections and disconnections can be traced between these two spheres.

3The IGC, on the other hand, is created through an unexpected use of the concept of indigenous knowledge, articulated by developing countries for the creation of a forum in which it is possible to discuss biopiracy. The creation of this forum is linked to the aim of these countries to fight dispossessions of biogenetic resources in their territories through the grant of patent rights to companies from industrialized countries.

4This articulation is only possible through previous recognition of a body of rights for indigenous peoples in the international arena. Such recognition is the result of the articulation of indigenous peoples and local communities from around the world in an international indigenous movement. This movement is created through the articulation of the concept of indigeneity by peoples around the world, which although coming from very different realities, recognize the similarities of their experiences of dispossession and discrimination, as well as of resilience. Thus, they recognize their similarities through an identity marker, enunciate the concept of indigeneity and articulate political alliances around it.

5This narrative at the global level is only possible through the recognition of the specificities of local realities, through the articulations of concepts of indigeneity and indigenous knowledge. In this sense, local processes are creating new narratives at the international level.

6As the IGC is created, indigenous peoples have the possibility to enter the discussion in an international organization that has strong ties to commercial and economic interests. This characteristic is not left behind when WIPO starts to discuss indigenous peoples’ rights. In fact, it has a strong influence in the framing of the discussion, producing a very specific narrative of protection of indigenous knowledge: a protection that passes through the attribution of exclusive rights and the creation of the conditions of alienation of its objects of protection. In other words, the creation of intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledge does not only open the possibility for indigenous peoples to seek protection through law enforcement, but it also paves the way to the commodification of traditional knowledge (Boyle 2002; Harvey 2004).

7The participation of indigenous peoples and local communities’ representatives in this forum is relevant as it inserts in the discussion around the meaning of indigenous knowledge more elements that are closer to indigenous peoples’ experiences, echoing many characteristics that were evoked at Vale do Ribeira.

8Comparing discussions at Vale do Ribeira and WIPO, it is clear that not only one narrative around the protection of traditional knowledge is possible. The creation of these narratives is deeply linked to the contexts in which they appear. In Vale, the idea of protecting traditional knowledge, just like the impulse to organize politically around identity markers, emerges as a response to episodes of dispossession. In this context, decisions around traditional knowledge are taken collectively, as traditional knowledge is considered as traditional communities’ collective production.

9The idea of protection that is built in Vale is thus deeply rooted in collective deliberation and is informed by the experiences of other traditional communities with whom they articulate politically due to their organization as indigenous or traditional communities. The response that comes out of this context is not of protection through intellectual property rights, but of collective decision about knowledge sharing through community protocols.

10The narrative of protection of traditional knowledge through intellectual property rights is thus only one possible narrative out of many. The case of Vale do Ribeira communities demonstrates that other narratives of protections, rooted in collective processes, are also possible.

11By considering the context in which the discussion around intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledges is constructed, and by putting it in perspective as one narrative of protection, we can see that this is not a story of expanding universal rights (Tsing 2011). The narrative of protection of indigenous knowledge through intellectual property, in the context of WIPO, is, in fact, a very specific one as it relies on unstable and unequal alliances between indigenous peoples’ representatives and delegates from national states.

12It is a narrative that emerges through friction. As such, although enabling for some movement, it also limits the road along which the narrative can move. Making an analogy with Tsing’s claim around the expansion of universal rights, we can say that the revindication of intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledges may also have a two-fold outcome: “it extends the reach of the forms of power they protest, even as it gives voice to their anger and hope” (Tsing 2011, 9).

13Although we cannot be sure about the outcomes of the creation of a category of intellectual property rights over indigenous knowledges, the possibilities and limitations unleashed by this category can be better understood if we consider the encounters and alliances that paved the way for its creation.


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