[SPC] Protecting traditional knowledge and culture: debate starts sympo sium programme

Submitted by Editor on Sun, 25/07/2004 - 21:49

Koror State Assembly Hall, the Republic of Koror, Palau, Friday July 23: The delegate from New Caledonia had just arrived for the festival. Walking along Koror's main street and wandering through the shops, he spotted a postcard bearing the image of one of his dancers in performance at the 1996 festival, held in Western Samoa.

Rosita Hoffmann

SPC - Press Releases

Saturday, July 24, 2004

The caption on the image read "Bali".

That's odd, he thought - is that supposed to indicate the dancer's name, or an Asian country? Either way, he felt distinctly uncomfortable.

"Well, what was I to do?" he asked delegates at today's symposium on the legal protection of traditional knowledge and culture. "Did I take it down?

Did I tell the person responsible? Or did I think: oh well, maybe we should share my culture?"

He told the tale in light-hearted fashion, but the point was a serious one.

How best to protect traditional knowledge and cultural expression from exploitation and appropriation was discussed today at the first of 18 forums at the Festival of Pacific Arts. About 30 people attended.

Culture and traditional knowledge - the know-how, skills, practices and techniques of people - tells people who they are. But in a rapidly developing world, those traits are often exploited insensitively, or even commodified.

For example, companies outside the Pacific have made millions exploiting the medicinal properties of kava (Piper methysticum) in products such as "relaxing" sweets and hair-growth products. Pacific motifs adorn t-shirts, wrapping paper and carpets made outside the region.

The protection of traditional culture and expression is not well served by existing intellectual property laws, which spring out of a world-view emphasising individual rights over the collective attitudes common in the Pacific.

In addition, many of the Pacific's younger people - those on whom the survival of cultural tradition depends - have grown up with one or both feet in western-style social systems, meaning their worldviews could be diverging from those of their parents.

But how you protect cultural expression is an enormously thorny and sometimes emotive issue, as discussion today proved. Participants raised a number of questions:

- As the world becomes a global village, do we make efforts to preserve traditional skills in an unchanged state, or do we develop them and share them?

- Is it possible to determine the owner of age-old traditions - and should we even try?

- Are there certain things in cultures which should never be documented or shared - for example, secret or sacred rites?

-Who gives permission within communities for the outside use of traditional knowledge?

And if something is documented, how can you prevent it becoming commercialised? And if it is commercialised, who benefits?

Hawaiian delegate Ms Victoria Takamine brought up another difficult issue: How can you protect your traditions from insiders who choose to sell their culture? She told how a Hawaiian tribal insider assisted American entertainment giant Disney to make use of a traditional song. Adding insult, the company copyrighted it and renamed it. "Our songs and dances are being taken out from under us so the benefits don't come back to those who own them," she said.

Many of the issues around protection of traditional culture have been studied, and to a certain extent answered, in work done by the Pacific Community (SPC) in regional forums.

The two experts who spoke were Mr Shin-ichi Uehara, a copyright expert from Japan, and American lawyer Mr Jerry Marugg, who is married to a Palauan deputy Festival director Faustina Rehuher) and who has been assisting the country in intellectual property issues.

Mr Uehara said he did not see any signs that any international agreements on protecting traditional knowledge was on the horizon. However, individual countries had options.

For example, said Mr Marugg, Palau's one-year-old copyright law should soon be joined by new legislation protecting items of traditional knowledge. The bill is based on the Model Law for the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture, developed by the SPC, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and the Pacific Forum Secretariat.

Adopted by Pacific Islands ministers in Noumea in 2002, 22 Pacific islands are in the process of adapting and adopting it.

The Palauan version enjoys wide political support, says Mr Marugg, and it was expected to be passed before the republic's next elections in November.

The bill required that traditional practices be written down and filed to be protected.

Symposium participants fell into sharply opposing camps on the wisdom of such a move. Some felt that any requirement to record oral traditions for the purpose of protection was demanding conformation with a western style of working.

Others recognised that written records could act as a form of cultural preservation, as well as creating a foundation from which access could be negotiated with outsiders or legal action taken.

Mr Marugg admitted that although Palau's Historical and Cultural Preservation Act dated from 1982, that, like the proposed law, also required that traditional culture be documented to be protected.

So far, physical items such as traditional Palauan stone pathways had been registered, rather than more intangible expressions of culture. Although Mr Marugg said Palauans understood "the importance of preserving cultural traditions," the encapsulation in writing of oral traditions had posed "significant" problems: "This can be very offensive and intimidating to traditional leaders".

After the symposium, Mr Marugg said that recording descriptions of cultural expression under Palau's proposed new law would also serve to help preserve them.

These days, Palauans are less in touch with their traditions than they once were: "Every time one of our elders dies ...so does a lot of our knowledge, and that's one of the key things.

For more information, please contact:

Rhonda Griffiths
mailto:RhondaG@spc.int ,
Cultural Affairs Adviser,
Secretariat of the Pacific Community,
Mobile in Palau: +00680 779 3612

Alexander Merep,
Festival Director and Minister for Community and Cultural Affairs,
Tel: +00680 488 1126.

The official website of the Festival of Pacific Arts is


Background information

The 9th Pacific Festival of Pacific Arts, being held in the republic of Palau, takes place from July 22 to 31, with more than 2000 people from 27 Pacific Island nations taking part.

The festival was conceived as a way to combat the erosion of traditional customary practices, and every four years since 1972, Pacific peoples have come together to share and exchange their cultures. This is the first year that the festival has been held in the northern Pacific and also the first year in which every single member of the Council of Pacific Arts has been represented there.

The Pacific islands and nations taking part this year are: American Samoa, Australia, Cook Islands, Easter Island, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.

The theme of this year's festival is Oltobed a Malt: Nurture, Regenerate, Celebrate.

The phrase, in the Palauan language, signifies that the process of promoting new growth to maintain the essence of a culture is dependant on the wisdom and endurance of the ancestors. The physically-able youth power the canoe, while elders stabilise the country and navigate the course. The young people have keen vision, to seek and select new and effective ideas to ensure a successful future. The festival assures the protection of cultural heritage and supports the aspirations of young people.

The following activities will be demonstrated, conducted and exhibited during the 10-day festival: contemporary and traditional arts (body art, weaving, wood, bone and stone carving, tapa making, tattooing, jewellery, beadwork, shellwork and pottery); photographic arts, cinematography, costumes, and floral arts; traditional medicine and healing crafts; traditional canoe-building and navigational crafts, traditional culinary arts, philatelic arts, traditional moneys and literary arts; traditional and contemporary performing arts (oratory, storytelling, musical instruments, song, dance, drama, fire-walking, traditional sports, symposium, debates and workshops on issues such as legal protection of traditional knowledge, roles of traditional and elected leadership, natural resources as wealth, social change, and education).

The traditional welcoming of the canoe flotilla takes place at dawn on Thursday July 22.

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