Indigenous knowledge: adding value to science and innovation

 This year is a significant one for the evolution of Indigenous Affairs policy in Australia. It marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, while the government is reviewing its Closing the Gap targets and the mechanisms used to address them.

Two of the targets relate to Indigenous employment and economic development. This article considers two case studies where the Indigenous knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contributed to scientific research and innovation. In one, the approach has empowered the local community, with the potential to significantly improve employment and economic development. In the other, Indigenous communities have had little say in the commercialisation process and to date have received minimal benefit from the use of their knowledge.

What is Indigenous knowledge?

Indigenous knowledge, also known as traditional knowledge, includes know-how, practices, skills and innovations. It can be found in a wide variety of contexts, such as agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal fields, as well as biodiversity-related knowledge. It is intertwined with cultural and social practice and Indigenous language.

How is Indigenous knowledge relevant to science and innovation?

In her 2015 article ‘STEM the gap: Science belongs to us mob too, Associate Professor Rowena Ball outlines examples of Indigenous scientific and engineering heritage, including the system of stone fish traps of the Ngunnhu people on the Barwon at Brewarrina; aquaculture and eel farming by the Gunditjmara people of south-western Victoria; and the work of eminent Indigenous scientist and inventor David Unaipon, ‘who extensively documented the scientific abilities and achievements of Indigenous peoples over Australia’.

The 2013 report, Indigenous engagement with science: Towards deeper understandings, noted that there are ‘significant opportunities for government and industry to engage with Indigenous people in a way that will maximise the potential for increased productivity across a wide range of scientific activity.’

Case study: Nanofibres and resin from Spinifex

Scientists from the University of Queensland worked in partnership with the local community of the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu People in Central Australia to identify and harvest a particular type of spinifex, extracting nanofibers and resin.  The project’s team combined Indigenous knowledge about the application, preparation, structure and properties of spinifex and its resin with controlled laboratory purification, modification and testing to evaluate the potential for developing the resin and fibres as renewable materials. Professor Martin, a lead researcher, noted that the discovery is distinctive:

The nanofibres that we can extract are long, thin and stretchy – only a few nanometres wide but thousands of nanometres in length…As a materials scientist, this is exactly what we look for when we want to reinforce flexible materials…

The technology is expected to be of great interest to applied materials science industries, including the multi-billion dollar condom market, and in carbon fibre and composites manufacturing (used for example in aircraft, high-end cars and bikes).

This project has the potential to significantly improve prospects for employment and economic development for Indigenous people. Harvesting and initial processing of the spinifex will be undertaken in the community, with local rangers managing the environment where the spinifex grows. Colin Saltmere, Managing Director of the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation, said ‘It’s about providing jobs to our people and reclaiming some integrity’.

Case study: Kakadu plum

The Kakadu plum is native to the top end of Northern Australia, and is the richest known source of Vitamin C in the world, with multiple potential applications in the food, beauty and health industries.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Mirarr people, says:

The Kakadu plum has been an important source of food and medicine for the Mirarr…It also features in oral histories and 'dreaming' stories.

Local Indigenous people are now beginning to trial commercial plantations of the fruit, however there were concerns in the past that Indigenous communities had little or no recognition, control or benefit-sharing from the commercialisation of their knowledge.

Wendy Morgan, chair of the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council, said:

You’ll have the big pharmaceutical companies coming out and talking to [Indigenous communities] and taking samples of their medicines. They might acknowledge where they got it from, but there is no money going back into that community they got the information from.

In a 2016 episode of Landline, Margo Northey, leader at the Wadeye Women’s Centre noted:

This is knowledge that's been around for a long time, and it's great that it's being exploited to some extent, but recognition…is really important. There is no priority given to Indigenous people. Anyone, including big companies, can currently put in place patents on processing bush foods, making it difficult for Indigenous people to commercialise them.

The program also notes that ‘the Northern Land Council…represents traditional owners and is calling for a blanket moratorium on all patents over native foods and plants until a legal framework protecting Indigenous interests can be enforced.’

Appropriate use

Indigenous knowledge, when used appropriately, brings potential benefits to Indigenous Australians as well as the broader Australian community. In her 2011 Mabo oration, Terri Janke, an Indigenous intellectual property lawyer, said:

Indigenous people have customary rights and obligations to their Indigenous knowledge, cultural expression, just like land. Sometimes that knowledge is sacred, but at all times that knowledge comes from a place and forms the identity of the people. There are rules about how it should be respected, and reproduced, disseminated and interpreted.

Ms Janke has written a number of publications canvassing the issues that need to be considered when Indigenous knowledge is involved, including Our Culture: Our Future and New tracks.

A 1998 research paper by the Parliamentary Library also discusses many of the issues.

Where to next

The World Intellectual Property Organization has been working since 2001 to develop a global system to protect Indigenous knowledge around the world. The Australian Government and Australian Indigenous representatives are active in this process. Other relevant international instruments include the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Nagoya Protocol and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

IP Australia has published Dream shield, a guide to protecting intellectual property for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The agency has also commissioned a discussion paper on Indigenous knowledge issues in Australia. This will be used to consult with the public in 2018 ‘on ways to improve the protection and management of Indigenous Knowledge, and to identify opportunities for Indigenous people to benefit economically from their knowledge’.



Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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