plants DB - indigenious

Pacific Edge Permaculture + Media pacedge at
Sat Dec 29 06:20:45 EST 2001

> From: 1earth permaculture <permaculture1 at>
> Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2001 8:37:12 +1000
> Subject: Re: plants DB - indigenious
> I had a chat with an Australian Aboriginal elder yesterday, which
> might be worth sharing on this List. The Plants DB came up and her
> response was:
> There is one specific native plant she mentioned that has some amazing
> medicinal properties, which the aborigines have been using for
> centuries. It is extremely hardy and can grow almost anywhere. They
> dare not mention the plant to most white folk for fear that the plant
> will be commercialised, patented, fought over, synthesized and sold
> over the chemist counter. As she said, that's not the plant's purpose.

This makes the assumption that all 'white folk'  would behave in this way,
which they would not. It seems, on information supplied, that this woman was
generalising about 'white folk' the same way many Australians of European
origin generalise about Aboriginies.

> She requested that the plant not be mentioned on a public domain
> database.
> Marcus

I encountered this attitude with an Aboriginal education officer employed by
a major Australian botanical institution. We were discussing some bush foods
and medicines he had on display at a show. One of the plants, he said, was
used medicinally. He could not tell me (or any non-Aboriginal) about it,
though, because he had made an agreement not to.

His reason was that commercial interests might develop a pharmaceutical from
the plant and that Aboriginals would not be compensated for passing on their
traditional knowledge. I am aware that there are plenty of precedents for
this elsewhere in the world and, probably, in Australia.

In an economic sense, the practice of treating traditional knowledge - such
as that discovered and developed by indigenous peoples - as 'free goods' is
clearly unfair and unjust . It flies in the face of the market economic
proposition of paying for services at the market rate as well as the moral
precept of fairly rewarding people for sharing something of theirs that will
benefit the common good.

After discussing the issue further with the education officer, I realised:

1) information about medicinal uses of Australian bush plants is already
available in anthropological and ethnobotanical literature

2) the information is also available in books published for plant
enthusiasts, such as Cribb's 'Medicinal Plants' (Angus and Robertson,
Sydney, 1981) and Lassack and McCarthy's 'Australian Medicinal Plants'
(Mandarin Books, Melbourne, 1990).

Unless the information was unknown to researchers, the action to exclude
non-Aboriginies was taken too late to achieve its purpose. No doubt, there
are medicinal plants unknown to researchers but known to Aboriginal
populations of particular areas - that is why ethnobotanical teams from
overseas have been grated permission to scour the Australian flora for
potential pharmaceuticals in recent times.

WIDER ISSUES..........
There are wider issues than fair recompense for traditional knowledge at
stake here, however, and I feel they must be discussed in any more or less
objective assessment of the exclusion of non-Aboriginies (or by other
indigenous peoples) from traditional knowledge, although they might offend
the politically correct and advocates of rights for indigenous peoples.


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