Working paper

What do you really need to know? An overview of the challenges associated with the management of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge by seed bank institutions

27 Nov 2014

This discussion paper reports on the outcomes of a colloquium held in Canberra on 21 June 2014 at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University. The colloquium was held to discuss the challenges associated with seed banking and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and to see how those challenges could be responded to effectively, fairly and efficiently. The four questions posed to structure the discussion were:

1. Do we need to acknowledge cultural interests when biobanking seeds and using them in research?

2. Do cultural interests travel with a seed throughout such processes?

3. Can current legal mechanisms, such as intellectual property, be used to deal with cultural complexity in a scientific research setting?

4. Is traditional knowledge of seeds liable to be subjected to biopiracy?

Responses showed that seed banks currently determine the amount of cultural knowledge that is collected and that it is critical to distinguish between ecological and culturally sensitive information in the collection of seed data. As intellectual property laws have proven inadequate to protect traditional knowledge associated with seeds and prevent biopiracy, other approaches need to be explored, such as the legal principle of kinship and cooperative approaches. Bridging the gap between collecting data about seeds and being respectful of the cultural integrity of those data raises political and operational issues, and actions may have unintended consequences.

Organisations that collect seed need to take these issues into account in their management processes; they can improve their accountability through:

1. an operating protocol for knowledge collection

2. a means to convert the knowledge transaction into obligations, such as through a knowledge trusteeship

3. an administrative process to manage and enforce responsibility.

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