Why Nike, Forever 21, Nestlé & Hermès should pay attention to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
Latin American and Caribbean Indigenous peoples use world platform to highlight IP abuses of major world companies.
“What do we see in the cities? Private property, this is mine, that is yours and nothing belongs to the people. Even the streets and avenues belong to the municipality, so no one cares how their neighbor lives, whether the street is clean or whether there is a person lying on the ground. They have forgotten about reciprocity, solidarity and complementarity. Functioning in isolation like this, a few will own everything and the rest are destined to be poor.”
So says Alberto Morales Luquisani, an elder from the Muñecas province of La Paz, Bolivia, in a new United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) report, “Collective intellectual property and the appropriation of the ideas and creations of indigenous peoples.”
Top line: The report, highlighted as part of the 21st session of UNPFII ongoing in New York City, defends the importance of Indigenous collective ownership of knowledge and wisdom, as well as problems associated with the appropriation of the ideas and creations of Indigenous peoples. It was prepared by forum members Irma Pineda Santiago, an Isthmus Zapotec writer and a professor at Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, and Simón Freddy Condo Riveros, Quechua of Bolivia, who has worked on Indigenous issues as a journalist, academic and policy adviser.
Main point: The UN addresses intellectual property issues through its specialized agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is responsible “for promoting creative intellectual activity and for facilitating the transfer of technology related to industrial property to the developing countries in order to accelerate economic, social and cultural development.” The agency, headquartered in Geneva, focuses on private IP and excludes the system of collective and community ownership advocated by some Indigenous peoples. It was constructed sans Indigenous input, having taken root in 1883 when 14 countries signed the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, which created IP protections for inventions, trademarks and industrial designs.
Problems: Indigenous ideologies of collective wisdom and knowledge are usually ignored, unaddressed and/or subverted by WIPO. At the same time, most Latin American and Caribbean countries have no domestic legal frameworks to protect the IP rights of Indigenous peoples. Even though WIPO is not a perfect solution to offer protection, it can and should shine a spotlight on abuses, the report’s authors and several attendees of UNPFII 2022 say. They believe WIPO should not encourage Indigenous peoples to “give up or hand over their knowledge” to “pharmaceutical and textile firms and textile factories, which then become the owners and exploiters of that knowledge and other elements of collective intellectual property, while indigenous peoples become the suppliers of the raw materials and the wisdom, on the grounds that this will provide them with a secure market.”
The winners thus far: Fashion designers Isabel Marant and Carolina Herrera, as well as Nike, Louis Vuitton, Nestlé, Mango, Rapsodia and PinedaCovalín, the Spanish company Zara, the Mexican company That’s It, Forever 21, the Indonesian brand Batik Amarillis, the British companies Star Mela and Marks and Spencer, and Hermès have all been recently accused in various forms of stealing and/or profiting from collective and/or individual Indigenous ideas, including textile designs, food development and biodiversity-related issues.
While cases have been reported to WIPO, little is happening to aid Indigenous claims, despite many aspirational, idealistic international efforts. “[T]his international recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights remains inadequate, as it is more akin to charity,” says the report. “The cultural heritage of many indigenous peoples is in danger because the underlying problem, recognition of collective rights, is not being addressed.”
Call to action: The report’s authors and a number of attendees of this year’s meeting of UNPFII are calling on WIPO and governments of the UN to integrate “legal frameworks for valuing, protecting and safeguarding the permanence of the rights of indigenous peoples over their cultural heritage and their collective intellectual property, which includes traditional knowledge and knowledge of biodiversity.”
It’s already happening: The companies should take note, the authors say, as countries such as Brazil and Panama and, more recently, Mexico, have “made progress in passing laws on the protection of intellectual property, specifically that of Indigenous peoples.”
How we got here: Layers of colonialism that have resulted in “policies and practices of reductionism, assimilation and integration,” according to the report.
Related: Wealthy French fashionistas aimed to profit off Indigenous Mexican elder
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