Despite recent court rulings, "biopiracy" -- non-locals patenting treatments based on plants used by indigenous communities -- continues to be a problem. Construction of databases and knowledge archives about native group uses of local plants is an increasingly popular way of combatting biopiracy (by establishing "prior art," and blocking patents), but such projects are not easily accomplished. Indigenous knowledge is often an oral tradition, and remote communities in the developing world may not be willing to share that knowledge with outsiders.
The Management of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Project is a South African effort to identify and protect the unique local biosystems used by local communities as medicines, based the authority -- and knowledge -- of female traditional leaders. The result has been something even greater than a knowledge archive:
The female traditional leaders from the Eastern Cape said that the initiative to manage indigenous knowledge systems was community-driven. Before embarking on the Management of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Project, female traditional leaders from Rharhabe Kingdom focused on how commercial exploitation of traditional foods could help develop their communities. However, they later realized the need to link the management of indigenous knowledge systems on traditional foods with that of traditional medicines in order to make their promotion of rural livelihoods or development effective. The sources of traditional foods and medicines are largely indigenous plants and grains. Some medicines are also acquired from animals and reptiles.
The female traditional leaders said that they intended to uplift the socio-economic well-being of their communities through the establishment of community business enterprises that produced, marketed, and sold traditional foods and medicines. Already, a traditional food production center and restaurant have been set up in the Eastern Cape-based Rharhabe Kingdom.
Local women are already being trained to manage this new community business enterprise, which will culminate in the establishment of a traditional restaurant in the Rharhabe Kingdom. About 20 female traditional leaders from Rharhabe Kingdom said that they also intended to set up a traditional medicine pharmacy in their Kingdom.
One notable aspect of the project is that it aims to stop not just institutional biopiracy (from pharmaceutical concerns, for example) but also casual biopiracy from local city dwellers. Apparently, a number of useful plants are being over-harvested by South African urbanites looking for medicinal or nutritional supplements.