Breaking A Sacred Trust
September 24, 2018 10:47 AM   Subscribe

On the exploitation of traditional native knowledge

In many Native American communities, there's a fear that any knowledge shared with scientists could end up in published reports—which could, in turn, lead to a familiar story of plundering.
posted by poffin boffin (15 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Somebody previously linked to a Māori speech recognition project. That link includes the license they're using, which is very interesting.

There's immense value in a linguistic corpus, especially one for a low-resource language. Large tech companies understand that value and would absolutely love to capture and monopolize it; the people working on that project are right to be concerned about cultural appropriation in the most direct and literal sense.

There's a sense in which these things -- both languages and biological and ecological information -- are "public", in that anyone could observe them. I think some people bring that intuition when they argue that the information ought not be restricted in any way, but it's not the right intuition.

If you published the corpus Google uses internally to train Google Translate, they would be very mad and would sue you and try to send you to jail -- even though it's mostly scraped from books and the internet and public sources like the EU parliament.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:15 PM on September 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

So, if corporations can be people and have free speech and property, why can’t tribes get the same benefits? They are even sovereign in some specific ways; that should give more “personhood” than some pharma company....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:45 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thousands of Pacific yews were stripped of their bark, putting the species' survival in danger.
Pacific yew populations declined "10-30% within the last three generations", in part due to the literal tons of bark needed for studies and clinical trials, but at the same time we were figuring out how paclitaxel can be synthesized, from unthreatened European yew tree needles or even from scratch, for about $10 a vial, so that specific threat is over. We now have two new WHO Essential Medicines (docetaxel was discovered on the same line of research), which are still some of the most recommended for breast cancer treatment, deforestation-free.

I don't want to downplay the concerns here (the rush to find synthetic production methods was because of the entirely-justified worries about ecology and sustainability, not regardless of those worries!) but I'm not happy with the truncated-at-a-misleading-cliffhanger reporting.

As an aside, this may not even be the most morally-dubious origin story among currently-popular breast-cancer drugs alone. It's worse than the scooped-from-World-Heritage-Site-dirt origin of the anthracyclines, but neither beats the chemical-warfare-spinoff history of cyclophosphamide.
posted by roystgnr at 2:19 PM on September 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Maslow inverted traditional Blackfoot beliefs to build his Hierarchy of Needs.

In reading this article, I get a slightly different take away, which is that Maslow's hierarchy wasn't an inversion, per se ,of the Blackfoot philosophy but a way to look at the prerequisite needs to self-actualization that the Blackfoot concepts uses as its starting place.

Maslow apparently made no attempt to credit the inspiration he drew from Blackfoot thought, and to compound the mistake established Self-Actualization as the end point, where Blackfoot philosophy was so much more expansive and visionary, expanding actualization beyond the self, to the community, and to humanity. Why only in 2018 I'm finally hearing both Maslow's inspiration and that there is a much older worldview that started where his hierarchy stopped is a shame. But it's all of a piece with how Western thinking has undervalued Native thought even where in different places it simply appropriated it wholesale and uncredited.
posted by tclark at 2:53 PM on September 24, 2018 [23 favorites]

I feel like there are a couple of issues here. First of all putting information into the public domain. Personally, I have no objection to this, but like all research, the sources should be identified (ie: taking something from tribal knowledge, but not acknowledging where it came from is obviously inappropriate).

The second is the issue of trying to claim tribal knowledge and take it for private gain - eg: patenting tribal healing knowledge. This seems to be simply theft, and is *highly* inappropriate.

Now, one could argue that if pharmaceuticals didn't get patent rights from stuff they, um, stole, they wouldn't be incentivized to research the effectiveness of these substances. To me that argument is a great argument for government research that then becomes public domain (and potentially government production of drugs such research produces).

But yeah, if you're a company, and you want to take tribal knowledge and then patent that knowledge, fuck off.
The USPTO exploits the Internet to find "Traditional Knowledge websites" to identify botanicals cited in patent applications that hope to produce profits from medicinal plants originally identified by native peoples and who may be denied their benefits if they are patented.
I don't see anything wrong (in fact it's their duty) for the USPTO to use the internet to determine if their was prior art, but they shouldn't then be granting patents to traditional medicine from the results of that research. They should be using databases of tribal knowledge to deny companies the ability to patent those drugs.
posted by el io at 6:15 PM on September 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


Recent history suggests those fears are merited. When botanists from the United States Department of Agriculture discovered in 1962 that tribes in the Pacific Northwest used the Pacific yew tree to treat a variety of ailments, including cancer, they released studies about a chemical they found in its bark, called paclitaxel, that stopped cancerous tumors from developing. The conifer quickly fell victim to overexploitation by pharmaceutical interests. Thousands of Pacific yews were stripped of their bark, putting the species' survival in danger.

That's one way to put it. How about:

This discovery, when shared with the wider world, and 'pharmaceutical interests' harvested, processed, and distributed it, saved or prolonged countless human lives.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 7:38 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Well, it may have saved or prolonged the lives of patients who could afford it, and it did so without enriching the tribe that had that knowledge to begin with. If we want to let private companies profit from these indigenous cures (I'm not a fan of this, necessarily), then the profits and patent rights should surely be shared with the tribes.

These pharmaceutical interests are not doing their work for the betterment of humanity, they are doing it for the cash, and will allow people who cannot afford the cure to die. I'm not saying the entire industry is like this, but there is certainly enough news stories with specific examples of this to paint a justified large brush against them.

The moment the R&D budget is larger than the profits for, and the marketing budgets of the pharmaceutical companies we can have a discussion about how those for-profit companies are helping the world.
posted by el io at 9:24 PM on September 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Maslow inverted traditional Blackfoot beliefs to build his Hierarchy of Needs.

Reinforces my feeling that Maslow’s pyramid is ethics, not psychology. It isn’t plausible that actual human motivation is compartmentalised like that; it seems more like he thinks this is how we should be motivated.
posted by Segundus at 11:14 PM on September 24, 2018

Ya, not sure about that. The profits American drug companies and their shareholders make under the current set-up are obscene, and I am personally doing what I can to help my man Bernie sort that out. But I don't really see that if THESE guys make a buck off Paclitaxil it is somehow morally better than if THOSE guys make a buck. What matters is the greatest good for the greatest number -- that life-saving drugs make it to as many people as possible who need them.

A huge multinational drug company can accomplish that; any given indigenous tribe probably cannot. Let's say the motives of the drug company were strictly monetary, and let's say for the sake of argument that the tribe's were not, let's say the tribe was absolutely altruistic. Does that change anything? Not really. Getting these drugs into people's hands is the goal; saving human lives, alleviating human suffering. If money is made in the process, the best place for that money to go is where it will further that goal... not where it will simply reward the folks in whose backyard some yew trees happened to be growing.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 11:20 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

OK, so we can run the flip side of that set of assumptions as well. Let's say the motives of the initial USDA researchers were strictly altruistic, and let's say for the sake of argument that the tribe was motivated solely by the expectation of achieving some kind of financial return on the knowledge they shared. Now that the "folks in whose backyard some yew trees happened to be growing" have seen how sharing that knowledge led to the decimation of their own trees with bugger-all compensation coming from those who ended up with the lion's share of the financial reward, what happens to their willingness to share other stuff that could save human lives and alleviate human suffering on a mass scale?

Because not even multinational drug companies have the resources to investigate every plant and every insect and every fish and frog and fungus on the planet for possible therapeutic effects. The knowledge of what's good for what that's embedded in every long-lasting indigenous culture is tremendously valuable and should be preserved. To the extent that the colonial world sees indigenous cultures as historical curiosities, and indigenous people as clueless rubes to be ripped off for beads and smallpox-infected blankets, the colonial world is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Treating people who know stuff with due respect is not only morally right, it's game-theoretically sound as well.
posted by flabdablet at 1:24 AM on September 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

> supports the right of pharmaceutical companies to profit off of exploiting indigenous knowledge

> does not support the right of indigenous people to profit off of exploiting indigenous knowledge
posted by tobascodagama at 5:33 AM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Many tribes share the idea of the Prophesy of the Eagle and the Condor, which says that there will be a synthesis in ideas and spirit between indigenous people and European people. A synthesis between the linear and aggressive ways of the eagle and the heartful and intuitive ways of the condor. I think that it's a powerful idea and the prophesy says that we're the generation that will accomplish this.

A little more than a decade ago when I was working really intensively with urban Indian communities, I attended a conference for Community Based Participatory Research. This idea of ensuring that communities are co-participants and direct beneficiaries of the research that is conducted amongst them really stuck me as innovative and necessary and I thought that it would be one of the next big things. I went to a session where the Gila tribe was partner in this kind of research collaboration and it was really heartening.

When I moved to DC, I was incredibly disheartened that community engagement, while seen as a checkbox to check, was usually considered a barrier and an obstacle both in domestic and overseas development. It was incredibly frustrating to see people with six figure salaries wrinkle their noses at how hard it is to engage communities experiencing poverty and fail to listen when I would say, "buy some pizza, provide a space for childcare, put up some flyers and communities will participate in your planning meetings. This is not hard." Instead they would decide to rewrite regulations to take the teeth out of community engagement requirements in the law.

Which is all to say, the structures and ideas required to honor traditional knowledge and to work alongside all types of people have existed for many years and the only reason that they're not used is because of lazy-minded bureaucrats who see themselves as too overworked and overburdened to listen to people.
posted by Skwirl at 7:04 AM on September 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

Also: Tribes worked for many years to lobby for a Tribal Liaison Officer to be created at the agency that I worked with. I worked with the person in that position quite a lot and they accomplished some really good things, but when that person moved on to a new agency, the agency did fuck all to hire a new person and just let the position die, handing off the title to the whitest white person who already wore a dozen hats as a token person to fill the gap.
posted by Skwirl at 7:08 AM on September 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

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