Theft of tradition knowledge for commercial gain

Other Names:
Uncompensated appropriation of native knowledge
Usurpation of indigenous knowledge for profit

The majority of 'wild type' reproductive and genetic raw material used in western laboratories is obtained from crops and wild plants in undeveloped countries, whose farmers typically reap no reward from the financial gains made by western corporations in their genetic patents. Pharmaceutical companies are turning to indigenous knowledge-based forms of healing for new medicinal plants and they are walking away with million dollar deals. In general, very little money goes back to the communities and the healers who shared their knowledge.


The African soapberry plant Phytolacca dodecandra, traditionally cultivated in many parts of the continent as a laundry soap and shampoo, contains a molluscicide (snail-killing agent). The berries of the plant, known in Ethiopia as endod, are lethal to most species of snails. In 1994 a USA university was granted a US patent on an endod-based molluscicide with the aim of producing a product to control the zebra mussels which in the past 10 years have invaded American lakes and clogged water supply systems, causing damage estimated in hundreds of millions of dollars. At issue was that the true "proprietors" of endod be justly rewarded, particularly as the "discovery" took account of centuries of indigenous knowledge in Africa. In this instance, the university was persuaded to allocate 15 percent of any royalties for the specific purpose of schistosomiasis control to benefit the people of Ethiopia.

This stands in contrast to most practices, such as the commercial development (solvent extraction) and patenting of an insecticide product, extracted from a South American native plant, which the native Indians have been using for the same purpose for centuries.

Narrower Problems:
Commercialization of culture
Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST