Biological diversity and intellectual property rights : the challenge of traditional knowledge


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




The abundance of wealth and technology in the North, and biological diversity and poverty in the South provokes an inquiry into an appropriate modality for the equitable harnessing and allocation of biodiversity dividends. Over the years, the traditional knowledge relating to biological diversity has been regarded as part of the "global intellectual commons", open to exploitation by all, and subject to validation by formal methods. That knowledge has remained the source of both increasing knowledge and critical discoveries of the therapeutic values of most components of biological diversity. There is a consensus between the North and the South that an effective biodiversity conservation strategy should be one capable of providing incentives to the traditional custodians of wild habitat. Intellectual property is generally recognised as an appropriate framework to implement this objective. However, as a perennial subject of North-South disagreement, there is no consensus on the relevant details or mechanisms for deploying intellectual property rights to effectuate the objective. The United Nations Framework Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signifies a global regime embodying the ideals of incentivising the traditional custodians of the wild habitat as well as equitable sharing of the benefits of biodiversity. Arguably, it marks an end to the idea of regarding traditional knowledge as part of the global intellectual commons. This thesis contends that the CBD regime carries with it the burden of unresolved North-South perspectives on intellectual property rights. It argues that the heart of the conflict is the reluctance of the North to accord intellectual property status to traditional knowledge. This is partly because of the latter's informal nature but most importantly it derives from an inherent geo-political ideological conflict on the subject of intellectual property rights. Presently, the recognition of rights over traditional knowledge is approached on a sui generis basis. This thesis takes the position that the approach with its several limitations is not persuasive. It contends that on the merits, traditional knowledge is, and ought to be recognised as a subject matter of intellectual property rights. The recent elevation of intellectual property (a traditional subject matter of national law) to the international level under the WTO/TRIPs Agreement further undermines traditional knowledge. This has posed a setback not only to the global biodiversity conservation initiative, but also to the quest for equitable allocation of its dividends. It is my thesis that a national approach offers a better option for accommodating the intellectual property status of traditional knowledge and consequentially for advancing the quest for biodiversity conservation as well as equitable allocation of the dividends arising therefrom.


Convention on Biological Diversity -- (1992); Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights -- (1994); Biodiversity conservation; Intellectual property

Date Available



For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use




Law, Peter A. Allard School of