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Wed May 4 18:08:57 EDT 2011

societies. Open societies are those, commonly found in Western civilisation,
where the notion of information as common property underlies thinking -
where access to information is the ethos.

Yes, I know that critics of this notion will quickly (and justifiably) point
out that commercial/  corporate interests trademark, patent and copyright
property, effectively privatising it. It can be argued by those supportive
of conventional commercial practice that businesses do, however, share
proprietry knowledge in the form of products, thus making it available to
those who can afford it or, in the case of the Australian government's
subsidy of medicinal drugs, making available access to expensive
pharmaceuticals through subsidy. Where people are unable to pay for the
product, the recent success in forcing corporations to reduce the price or
to distribute freely AIDS drugs in Africa offers hope.

Closed societies, by my understanding, have a practice of treating
traditional information as private, not for sharing. This could be seen as
tantamount to the corporate practice of locking-up information or
privatising it, with the difference that the information is not converted
into a product. This effectively excludes people not of the same ethnic/
cultural/  tribal origin from benefiting from that knowledge.

A consequence of excluding others from critical information is that it never
serves the broader 'common good', such as a traditional medicine useful in
fighting disease has potential for or as corporate knowledge made
commercially available as affordable pharmaceuticals would do.

Advocates of maintaining exclusive cultural/  ethnic/  tribal rights to
traditional knowledge might say that this is the right of the cultural group
in question. In reality, it is. Yet, there remains the contradiction of
those groups sharing in the availability of conventional pharamaceuticals
through medical services while declining to share their cultural property
with people outside the culture whose health would benefit from it.

I have been brought up with the notion that the common good should prevail
over private interests, and with all the suffering in the world - much of it
treatable through pharmaceuticals and medicinal plants of whatever origin -
I am troubled by the notion of medicinal exclusivity whether of corporate or
tradtitional origin. I know that this will annoy people who place ethnic/
cultural considerations first, but it is a personal attitude that probably
has much to do with my being a product of Western civilisation.

So, how do developers of plant databases deal with the question of
indigenous pharmaceutical knowledge?

Given that many pharmaceuticals have been developed from plants that could
be considered the traditional knowledge of particular peoples, that many
plants useable straight from the garden have medicinal properties even
without or with minimal processing such as might be done in the home, and
that the probability is that  these people have never been adequately
recompensed for sharing their knowledge, are these species to be left off a

How do we ascribe property rights to traditional knowledge? Is a plant used
by, say, Germanic or English peoples their own property or the collective
property of the civilisation (Western civilisation) of which they are a

How do medicinal herbs as the property of a particular culture affect their
use by herbal practitioners? Do they pay royalties to someone?

In Australia, do we forego the use of eucalyptus oil and tea tree oil
because the plants might have been used by Aboriginal peoples? What about
macadamia nuts as food? Or what if the strongly lemon-flavoured tea tree on
the NSW north coast, shown to me by an ethnobotanist, were developed
commercially as a food flavour?  We would have to do a detailed search of
the anthropological literature to find out if any of these plants were used
traditionally by Aboriginal peoples.

I raise these points not in an antagonistic way but to take a broader view
of such issues than that normally afforded by the advocates of exclusive and
private cultural knowledge or exclusive and private corporate knowledge. I
also raise them as an advocate of sharing knowledge for the greater good,
providing that the developers of the knowledge benefit from its sharing.

...Russ Grayson

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