Nature has enormous diversity in biological resources that benefits people all around the world, in food, medicine, therapeutics and agriculture. These resources draw on thousands of years of human interactions with more-than-human worlds. But how can we ensure the benefits of these genetic resources are shared with the local people where they are sourced? Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) is a legally recognised system that seeks to ensure benefits from research on Indigenous knowledge of genetic material is shared. Professor Daniel Robinson (UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture) is working with communities in the Pacific and Australia (with Dr Margaret Raven) on ABS initiatives to return benefits of commercialisation back to communities.

Daniel and his team are focussed on implementing the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Nagoya Protocol seeks to ensure fair and equitable benefit-sharing arising from the use of biological resources and Indigenous, traditional knowledge for research and development purposes. One key threat to ABS initiatives is 'biopiracy'. Biopiracy occurs when indigenous knowledge is extracted by others for research, development and profit, without reciprocal authorisation and compensation for Indigenous communities. 

A hand in the foreground shows an edible nut named Canarium indicum.
Canarium indicum: an edible nut in Vanuatu that is also used for timber and medicinal purposes. Image provided.

Implementing the Nagoya Protocol, through initiatives such as capacity building workshops and consultations with government and 'bio-traders', attempts to create an ABS system returning benefits from commercialisation of biological resources, such as use of plants for cosmetic and food purposes, back to Indigenous communities and small island states in the Pacific. Some of the primary mechanisms that Daniel has supported in this work are permit systems, contracts and agreements, as well as Indigenous and local community protocols. 

In a recent article, Daniel and his colleagues explore the legal landscape of patent activity and the impacts that this can have on customary use of kava in Vanuatu. Their insights seek to understand how intellectual property laws can be used to commodify aspects of the more-than-human world. Here this refers to how embedded relationships with kava, as a natural resource, are intertwined with ni-Vanuatu identity and customary law. To mitigate against exploitation of kava trade and to maintain customary law, ABS regimes and contracts are one type of governance structure to protect Indigenous knowledge from misappropriation with a focus on economic benefit sharing with traditional knowledge holders. Daniel has also recently held workshops and capacity building initiatives with stakeholders in Tonga and Tuvalu to explore opportunities for implementing the Nagoya Protocol. 

An image of a Zoom meeting. The image has four screens with workshop participants looking towards the camera.
An image of participants from a workshop held to promote the Nagoya Protocol in Tuvalu. Image provided.

The IGD explored Daniel’s work as a case study in an action research project on understanding the meaning of research impact last year. Daniel’s work is one example of using socio-legal tools, such as patent landscaping and community protocols, to protect Indigenous resources from being appropriated. Importantly, it is an example of working with communities, government and non-government actors to implement legal change, which may lead to longer term impact. Impact such as this can strengthen autonomy of traditional knowledge holders to preserve their knowledge and customary law. It is hoped that in the next few years, this leads to more fair and equitable biological resource value chains and local community benefits for some Pacific islands plants and resources being researched for use in novel foods, skin care products and similar.