In the last couple of years, bilateral and regional free trade agreements (FTAs) have become immensely popular with governments disillusioned by the slow pace of trade liberalisation talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). At present there are over 200 FTA negotiating processes under way across the globe. While ostensibly aimed at breaking down trade barriers, these agreements are increasingly targeting indigenous peoples' and local communities' traditional knowledge in very real ways.
Traditional knowledge has come up in a dozen or so FTA drafting processes over the last couple of years. In half of those cases, specific provisions on traditional knowledge were signed. The pattern at play is simple. When facing the US, trade negotiators concerned about "biopiracy" try to put limits on when and how researchers and corporations can get patents on biodiversity or traditional knowledge in the United States. When the US is not involved in the trade deal, they carve out space to define their own legal systems of "rights" to traditional knowledge. In all cases, however, these FTAs are framing traditional knowledge as intellectual property - a commodity to be bought and sold.
With no consensus on how to "protect" traditional knowledge at the international level, much less in each of these FTA-negotiating countries, governments are fast committing themselves to a one-track approach through these trade pacts: traditional knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold under the conventional rules of exclusive private property.
This 16-page briefing is available from GRAIN at http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=196. A Spanish translation will be available shortly.