Our Right to Protect our Knowledge

Our Right to Protect our Knowledge

Tom Calma
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Launch of the Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide

Parliament House, Canberra

Thursday 24 September 2009


I begin by paying my respects to the Ngunnawal peoples, the traditional owners of this land. I pay my respects to your elders, past, present and future.

I also wish to acknowledge all Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders today, the owners of a vast body of knowledge and wisdom about this land Australia and how to live in it, that goes back many, many thousands of years.

I would also like to thank the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre for inviting me to launch the Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide, and to offer my support to the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation.

I also acknowledge and congratulate Isabelle Gorey Nam pat jimpa and Topsy Nap alt jari who are both here today and who contributed to the Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide.

The protection of our knowledge is an important issue that I have also paid particular attention to in my Native Title Report 2008. And I believe that our ability to use our knowledge’s to secure sustainable futures for our people and our communities, is crucial to our self determination.

Our ancient land is made up of vast bio-regions that have adapted to unpredictable natural forces. Our lands are characterised by drought and flooding rains, of famine and plenty, of fierce heat and bitter cold, of fertile soils and barren deserts. Everything that lives here, including us, has had to learn to cope with extremes, with unpredictability – or perish. Despite this, Australia has extremely high bio-diversity value. Our lands include bio-regions that are of global conservation significance, with many plants and animals found only on our continent and in our marine areas. It is because of this uniqueness and our tens of thousands of years of caring for our country, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as custodians, have a responsibility to ensure the integrity and maintenance of ecosystems on our lands and waters. Our knowledge about these places is integral to the future of this country and our planet.

Another unique characteristic of ancient Australia, is the ability of its Indigenous people to draw thousands of years of lived experiences into a vast body of tradition, law, knowledge and wisdom that has guided, and will continue to guide the generations to come, about living on and caring for this land.

They passed this knowledge and responsibility on to others, so it never died. They sang its songs, so they would never forget. They recorded this wisdom in their memories. Some of these memories, we know, were laid down long before the first stones of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt or Britain’s Stonehenge were placed. Maybe millennia before. Yet they were kept alive all that time, passing from ours Elders to our young people.

While non-Indigenous people consider our world to be one of oral transfer of knowledge, our elders have recorded their wisdom through their songs, and their art work, like that included in the Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide. And the ability to interpret and learn this knowledge was also passed down through the generations. We share with our ancestors over many generations – their insights into the land, how to care for it, respect and prosper from it. This wisdom and knowledge provides our peoples with a sense of how we belong to this land and abide by its unwritten rules for life.

This knowledge is immeasurably precious to us. It is also precious to non-Indigenous Australia too, though perhaps many do not yet realise how much. While you wonder about climate change, we have lived it. Our people witnessed a one-in-a-thousand year drought. Not with our own eyes, it is true; but with the eyes of our ancestors whose words and understandings of such events are still with us today.

The chain of knowledge, though weakening, remains unbroken. However, mechanisms that protect and maintain Indigenous knowledge remain inadequate at both the international and national level in Australia.

Today we come together to celebrate an important moment in the story of Aboriginal knowledge. Through the leadership of the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre and the Aboriginal people of Central Australia, we celebrate and ensure the continuing protection of our knowledge and our intellectual property.

We need a common understanding of what we mean by property, ownership, and the rights people have over certain objects, places, stories or ideas.

The Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide was developed by the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre because their researchers wanted to share Aboriginal knowledge respectfully, for the betterment of Australia.

The Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide provides a plain-language community guide that explains the sometimes complex issues of intellectual property rights in clear, transparent language and illustrates the process of reaching agreement about knowledge sharing in five vivid dot paintings by noted Aboriginal desert artists.

But more than that, the Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide provides a mechanism that creates a bridge, a relationship between our ancient tradition, our law and our culture, with a different law and culture owned by people that rely on our knowledge to secure their future but struggle to understand our world view. A way that enables us to share our knowledge with others without fearing its loss, misuse or abuse. A way that protects its integrity, and its Aboriginal ownership. Which sets fair rules for those who wish to access it and benefit from it. Which requires them to respect it.

The Protocol Community Guide states that:

  • Aboriginal people own their knowledge.
  • All research that concerns Aboriginal people must respect Aboriginal culture and knowledge.
  • Everyone should be equal in the research and have shared understandings.

This Protocol makes sure that researchers who work with Aboriginal people and the Desert Knowledge C R C - do the right thing.

It also sets out some pretty useful principles – which I’d be happy to see in other parts of Australian public life – like ‘being respectful of everyone involved’. Like working together constructively. Like meeting face-to-face. Like understanding that every place is different and has its own way.

Importantly, it recognises that some knowledge must be withheld: ‘Not all stories can be shared.’ And some can be shared, but not passed on or publicised.

It accepts that Aboriginal knowledge should only be shared on a basis of informed consent – that permission has to be fairly asked and fairly given, for the sharing to take place.

That it is OK to say ‘No’ – and it is OK for an Aboriginal person to change their mind about sharing.

Most importantly, Aboriginal cultural knowledge passed to a researcher should not be used in any way without the full agreement of the traditional owners.

This protocol binds researchers to observe Aboriginal law and culture when they keep and access the knowledge. And it provides that if requested, they must destroy any record of it.

And if there is to be any commercial use of the knowledge, there must be a legal agreement and the benefits must flow to traditional owners involved in the research.

This is a document designed to help both peoples – the researchers who are trying to understand Aboriginal culture, solve problems faced by Aboriginal people and their communities and understand the nature of Australia; and the traditional knowledge owners themselves.

It acknowledges us. It validates our wisdom. It is, in a way, a part of our reconciliation – of coming to understand and value one another’s beliefs.

The Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre has, in my eyes, played a vital leadership role in helping to build these bridges which allow knowledge and mutual understanding to flow between our cultures. And I congratulate you all today on the launch of your Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol Community Guide.

However, the process of sharing our ancient wisdom and applying it anew in the contemporary world has only just begun.

Today we all understand clearly the gap that separates many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from most Australians – a gap in health, employment, education, opportunity and often, hope.

This gap exists because many of the solutions proposed until now have not worked, or have not worked as well as they should have.

When something doesn’t work, it is generally because you do not understand the nature of the problem.

You have made some wrong assumptions, or not troubled to acquire all the essential data in order to make a good decision. Worse, you may have neglected to speak to the people most affected, thinking you knew best.

All of these things have contributed to the gap between Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australia. Between coastal and desert Australia. Between the outback and the suburbs.

And these gaps can all be addressed by the same means: through acquiring knowledge and understanding of the true nature of the problem, the measures which can solve it and the things most needed and desired by the people concerned.

It is in this context that I promote the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centres proposed Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation, and I urge the Federal Government and others to support this initiative. As I said earlier, it is my view that our ability to use our knowledge’s to secure sustainable futures is crucial to our self determination and it is our human right. Indigenous peoples must be at the forefront of this journey. We must be given the opportunity, supported by others, to develop culturally, socially and economically.

Remote Australia is critically important, not only to our economy but also to our society. To who we are; as Australians.

The main goal of the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation, quite simply is to conduct research that contributes directly to closing the gap between Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians. Its aims are:

  • To develop new ways to strengthen regional economies across remote Australia
  • To build new enterprises that provide jobs and livelihoods in remote areas, and
  • To improve the education and training pathways for people living in remote areas.

More than sixty partners, from federal and state government agencies, from Aboriginal organisations and communities, from the private sector large and small, have committed their support to the C R C for Remote Economic Participation. That alone is testament to the importance of this initiative.

The CRC for Remote Economic Participation can build on the important work of the Desert Knowledge CRC. It can ensure that the understanding of how to do things – like sharing one another’s knowledge respectfully – is not lost. It can build on a research foundation about the issues, industries and opportunities of remote Australia that is already firmly laid.

For Aboriginal people in particular it means a chance to turn our ancient knowledge and wisdom into fresh opportunities, into real livelihoods, new enterprises, into good health and learning, into the preservation of our culture and languages while living in the modern world.

Into renewed self respect.

Because, as you’ve maybe heard me say before, from self-respect comes dignity and from dignity comes hope.

Thank you.


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