Over the past two decades, biotechnology, pharmaceutical and human health care industries have increased their interest in natural products as sources of new biochemical compounds for drugs, chemical and agro-product development.  This has brought about the resurgence of interest in traditional knowledge and associated genetic resources.  This interest has been stimulated by the importance of traditional knowledge as a lead in advancing the frontiers of science and technology.  Traditional knowledge has been extensively used to gain useful understanding of how ecological systems generally work and interrelate.  This knowledge has contributed to the production in modern economy and played significant role in the R and D programs of industry. 

Traditional knowledge has been and continues to be an element in the commercialization of natural products.  It is currently supplied to commercial interests through databases, academic publications or field collection.  This undue exploitation needs to be paid for in some form.  Concern over the growing interest in and economic importance of traditional knowledge has generated a wide range of public policy issues including those associated with intellectual property protection.

According to the World Health Organization, up to 80% of the world's population depend on traditional medicine for its primary health needs.  It has been estimated that over 90% of food in sub-Saharan Africa is produced using customary farming practices. In China, traditional herbal preparations account for 30% - 50% of the total medicinal consumption whilst in Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Zambia, the first line of treatment for 60%of children with high fever resulting from malaria is the use of herbal medicines at home. In Europe, North America and other industrialized regions, over 50% of the population have used complementary or alternative medicine at least once. In the United States, 158 million of the adult population use complementary medicines and according to the USA Commission for Alternative and Complementary Medicines, US$17 billion was spent on traditional remedies in 2000.

Recently, Bio-prospecting of African biological resources by big pharmaceutical companies and research institutions has witnessed an upsurge in accordance with similar searches in the tropical forests of the world.  Unlike the synthetic route for developing new medicinal agents where the success rate may be 0.001%, the success rate with search for new therapeutic moieties based on medical plants used in Traditional Medicine can be as high as 74% or more (Wambebe 2002).  Unfortunately, many African researchers, THPs, plant gatherers, traders, etc knowingly and unknowingly have become active suppliers of the plant raw materials to Western investigators at very low one time cash payments.  The general poverty, which prevails in most African communities, has facilitated this kind of unfair transaction.  The paradox is that the medicinal plants acquired in Africa depletes the continent of its biodiversity and makes the people eventually poorer while strengthening the economies of the developed nations be selling the finished products at high rates to Africa.

Africa is endowed with rich and highly diverse biological resources and traditional knowledge which have been practised centuries before the advent of colonialization. This knowledge reflects the cumulative body of knowledge and beliefs handed down through generations by cultural transmission and the relationship of the local people with their environment. The African traditional systems have developed as a matter of survival of the communities in the management of socio-economic and ecological facts of life. It includes mental inventories of local biological resources, animal breeds, and local plant, crop and tree species.  It may include such information as trees and plants that grow well together, and indicator plants, such as plants that show the soil salinity or that are known to flower at the beginning of the rains.  It includes practices and technologies, such as seed treatment and storage methods and tools used for planting and harvesting.  TK also encompasses belief systems that play a fundamental role in a people’s livelihood, maintaining their health, and protecting and replenishing the environment.  TK is dynamic in nature and may include experimentation in the integration of new plant or tree species into existing farming systems or a traditional healer’s tests of new plant medicines.

In spite of the important role traditional knowledge plays in sustainable development, it continues to be largely disregarded in development planning.  It currently plays only a marginal role in biodiversity management and its contribution to the society in general is neglected.  Furthermore, traditional knowledge is being lost under the impact of modernization and the ongoing globalization processes.  Traditional knowledge may contribute to improved development strategies in several ways such as by helping identify cost-effective and sustainable mechanisms for poverty alleviation that are locally manageable and locally meaningful; by a better understanding of the complexities of sustainable development in its ecological and social diversity, and helping to identify innovative pathways to sustainable human developmental that enhance local communities and their environment.


The notion of the protection of traditional knowledge has taken the centre stage in the global debate on the actions that could be taken to preserve, protect and promote the development of the knowledge.  Cross-cutting issues including rights of indigenous populations to benefit from the use of  their resources, the relationship between the patent requirements of the TRIPs Agreement and the substantive obligations of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the asymmetry between the benefits obtained by companies that exploit traditional knowledge-based products and the lack of benefit for the traditional knowledge holders have engaged the attention of the international community. Considerable discussions have taken place in different forums (WIPO, CBD, FAO, WHO, UNCTAD, UNESCO and WTO etc) and a number of regulations and policies on the protection of traditional knowledge have been proposed or adopted. The deliberations and debates taking place at the international forums have contributed significantly to the clarification of many of the substantive issues and resulted in the development of national regimes and policies. 


ARIPO’s initiatives on the protection of genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore began when the Council of Ministers of the Organization at its Seventh Session, held in Ezulwini, Kingdom of Swaziland from August 24 to 25, 2000 resolved that  “in view of the need of a coordinated strategy to deal with the problem of the protection of indigenous knowledge, the Organization should take initiatives on traditional knowledge and link its initiatives with those undertaken by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)  through its active involvement in the WIPO activities in this field”.

(Click here to download the Swakopmund Protocol on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Folklore)