Tropical Islands of the South Pacific Could Be Ripped Off

The South Pacific is at RiskLife has changed little for thousands of years, in many hidden corners of the tropical islands of the South Pacific. Tradition and ancient culture has been the rule of the village, with the people living a simple day to day existence. However, these ancient indigenous communities are not protected from the abuse of International Property Rights, in the ever expanding and cut throat scene of global commerce.

The only way to prevent highway robbery is to look urgently and seriously to the educational needs of the next generation. Because of the islanders very simplistic way of life of they have preserved unique pockets of areas, untouched by modern civilization, which are a delight to the scientist and a unique experience for the tourist.

In the picturesque island of French Polynesia, an ambitious research program is underway, which will produce a library of genetic markers. These will be used as a unique resource for ecologists and evolutionary biologists around the world. It is a combined program between a French research institute and a United States Californian university. Once such projects turn into profit, there are usually very few benefits that find their way down to the islanders, whose lives have been violated. One has only to look at the large diamond fields of the world to ascertain this.

The book Pacific Genes and Life Patents, co-edited by Aroha Te Pareaka Mead, talks of a high profile situation where Carol Jenkins, a medical anthropologist, allegedly stole leukemia curing genes from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Through its National Health Institute, the United States patented the DNA cells, without gaining the Hagahai peoples’ permission. This stole what rightly belongs to a unique group of people and their unborn generations. Neither the individuals, nor the communities, nor their government were informed of the project. The US government outright objected to the claims of the Hagahai people, stating them as being inconsequential.

The question as old as commerce itself, remains? Who should benefit from such finds? The company that spends time and money developing the valuable find, or the original owners of the raw material? History shows that these type of projects have not been kind to Pacific islanders.

Property is jointly owned by everyone in the group, in Pacific islands, Mead explains. For individuals who culturally own nothing, to begin to claim Intellectual Property Rights, is to deny what is owned communally. “They don’t own the myths and traditions they pass from generation, the music they sing, their mind, their bodies, the words they speak, or the dances they dance. All these form part of their ancient heritage. Any creativity, or gifts, become part of the next generation’s heritage“.

The Hagahai of PNG Should be Multi-MillionairesIf money is owed to a nephew, the feels uncle he has the right to claim some of it. Let a Pacific islander borrow a shirt and it is usually not returned. Not because they are trying to steal the shirt, but because of their simplistic inherent belief that wealth is defined by what they can give away. Their ability to play host, to be generous and give to others is the measure of their riches.

The local villagers do not have the idea of amassing wealth, as practiced in developed countries. When the price of local grown commodities rise due to rising universal food prices, the local people produce less. Once they have earned enough money to pay for school fees, buy some simple staple supplies and clothing, what is the need to sell any more of their crop? Why should they bother to do extra work if they can earn the same amount for less effort? They have no lasting allegiance to a cash economy, though they do like to enjoy the limited benefits it gives them.

The majority of the people particularly in rural areas, are not able to recognize potential commercial opportunities within their culture and capitalize on them. If there were any commercial probability, from cultural expression to mineral rich volcanic ash, metaphysics to blood cells, unique flora or fauna, the Pacific islanders would unknowingly remain sitting on an untapped gold mine.

Education is an absolute necessity if the younger generation of island people, who stand as a link between the richness of their traditional culture and partaking of the benefits of the 21st century. Only through education will they come to an understanding of how to protect their custom rights and privileges, as well as maintain their island way of life, before their tropical island paradise is lost forever.

The message is clear for countries like the still underdeveloped tropical island nation of Vanuatu. The days of poorly educated politicians leaping on the Government gravy train and blundering their way through a few years of pocket-lining public office are over. There is a rising swell of opinion, demanding better education and health facilities, for all members of the community.


This article was written by Dr Wendy Stenberg-Tendys, Co-CEO of YouMe Support Foundation of Vanuatu.

~ by Tavurvur on March 10, 2009.

12 Responses to “Tropical Islands of the South Pacific Could Be Ripped Off”

  1. Hi,
    thank you for highlighting this issue. I also read your post on the bilum and couldn’t help but think that Pacific islanders ought to really come out strongly to support the protection of our heritage. It must be a cause that we must passionately highlight. We must throw our weight behind increasing the awareness of what IPR is and how we can protect our interest. Or else, we will continue to be exploited by the mass market of the commercial world. If things are communally owned as they are in the Pacific, then we must find a way to also communally share its benefits. May we not be overtaken by the greed culture that has now destroyed the so called developed world.
    I urge the readers of this blog and all our Pacific kinfolk to unite behind the protection of the heritage that our forefathers had so faithfully left us and the unborn peoples of this region.

  2. Thank you Dionisia,

    The idea of maybe having a regional IPR department in charge of all issues related to IPR within the Pacific region is a brilliant idea!

    However, who is going to fund it and how will it operate? The governments of our region – i.e. the PACIFIC – must first appreciate and identify that there is currently a need in the Pacific to establish such an office.

    The list of “copy-cat” ideas initiated by the West which have their origin within the Pacific is growing, for example: The Hagahai (PNG) blood cells, Deep Forest’s “Lullaby” (Solomon Islands), the bilum (PNG), etc.

    There is no doubt that the need for such an office exists, however, what will it take to convince those in power that they should begin addressing the issue NOW?

  3. Hi Tavurvur,

    Yes, thank you for bringing this and the French ‘bilum’ issue to our attention. (I was brought to your blog from ABC ‘In the Loop’)

    As an Australian South Sea Islander, I’m also very concerned about the protection of the cultural identity and intellectual property belonging to the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific and Australia.

    I would like to share a web link to an excellent article ‘Toward a national cultural authority’ published in the autumn 2009 edition of ‘YARN UP’ magazine (Australia Council for the Arts) which is relevant to this discussion.

    The article talks about Australian Indigenous lawyer Terri Janke’s proposal at last year’s 2020 summit in Canberra; that the Australian Federal government considers the need for a national Indigenous cultural authority. This idea came from Janke’s report ‘ Our Culture; Our Future, about the issues of Indigenous cultural protection, pub. 1999 by Michael Frankel and company.

    The YARN UP article also makes reference to; the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and pacific countries that have draft cultural expressions bills and proposed traditional knowledge bills. Your post above and the French ‘bilum’ ads to the argument for the need for Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property authorities?

    Another relevant publication (which you can download from the Australia Council for the Arts website) is ‘Indigenous cultural and intellectual property: the main issues for the Indigenous arts industry in 2006’, by Terri Janke and Robynne Quiggan. ‘An overview of the most pressing issues for the recognition of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (ICIP) in 2006.’

    In regard to the French ‘bilum’ registering the ‘bilum’ domain name, apparently WIPO also deals with domain name complaints under the ‘Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy’ (UDRP). For example. ‘if the domain name holder has no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name’ ( e-business, the law, and you. A guide for Australian business by Mark Allen, pub. 2002 Nella Socterbock.)

    I strongly support this cause and will be keeping watch in Australia.

  4. Hi Krishna,

    Thank you for pointing me in the direction of those two publications. I just printed them off and will read them when I have the time. For my readers who are also interested in this issue, I suggest you do the same too.

    As you suggest, the issue of indigenous cultural and intellectual property (let’s call the subject-matter that – ICIP) seems to be a problem in Australia too. Would you know the latest development in regard to Australian Federal authorities acting on Terri Janke’s research?

    It seems to me that maybe we should be looking at the model New Zealand has in place because honestly, at LEAST they have some sort of ICIP infrastructure in place!!!

    As for WIPO’s mandate over domain names, I’ve sent them an email and hopefully will get back a reply soon!

    Kind Regards,


  5. Bula Tavurvur,

    First, thank you for this interesting blog that you keep and for constantly highlighting issues that are close to us, not just to the people of PNG but also to the rest of the Pacific islanders.

    I agree with you. Your reservations on how a regional IPR will work is shared by many others I have spoken to regarding Intellectual Property Rights in relation to Pacific traditional knowledge (agricultural, fishing, medicinal, etc), cultural expressions (songs, dances, folklore, etc) and biological resources (flora, fauna, genetic resources, etc).

    Like you, they also believe that there is a lack of awareness and understanding of this issue by governments in the region. It probably is not on the priority list. But I always wonder what our Pacific trade negotiators and politicians think we are going to sell to the world when they go out to clinch their trade deals with other countries.
    Surely, we can align the potentials within our own traditional resources to those trade allowances. The automatic downstream initiative of that process would be the need to protect these goods and services that arise out of our traditional resources.
    Out of that, perhaps a national or regional IPR office might emerge.
    I mean, that’s just an idea of how to create visibility of this issue in the mind of the Pacific politician.

    But then again, it may not be a good idea to go regional straight away on something as complex as this. Perhaps it is better if we work first with a village model, to first identify the things of value to this village (folklore, dances, songs, local medicinal knowledge, fishing and agricultural knowledge, local art, designs, totems, etc), create a storage facility of the information collected, which would include the documentation of ownership (this would be a data bank, AKA: the Village Information Bank).

    Phase two would be the application of the Pacific Model Law on IPR in relation to Tradition Knowledge and Cultural Expressions on this local example (this draft law actually does already exists).

    Protected as such, Phase three would be the invitation of indigenous investment institutions (perhaps a venture capital outfit set up by forward thinking and ambitious indigenous entrepreneurs) to support the identification and development of potential “products” and “services” from within the Village Information Bank.
    The involvement of the venture capitalist would be on the basis of a partnership with the local owners of whatever materials are used for the development of the marketable product and services.

    Then Phase four would be the marketing and promotion of these goods and services outside of the village.

    But then again, that just might be wishful thinking on my part! ☺

  6. Thanks for reading my Blog Dionisia! 🙂

    You make a good point about our respective trade “negotiators” and their ability to tie in such ICIP (indigenous cultural and indigenous property) concessions/MOUs into their trade deals.

    Although, a problem here is the leverage power of our trade “negotiators”! Just look at the EU – Pacific FTA, it doesn’t look as if it was negotiated at all by our part (but that’s another story). It seems to me that if our governments can’t take the matter seriously, how in the world are we going to convince the rest of the world to take the matter seriously?!!

    The idea of the “Village Information Bank” is a good idea. However, it must be made clear that not all villagers nor peoples of the Pacific will be willing to share their ICIP – and that is perfectly OK. If there was such an office created, I myself will not register certain “traditional knowledge” on behalf of my people.

    And herein lies another problem, since the knowledge of our people is communally owned – how will we reach consensus on what ICIP should be registered and what ICIP should not? For general items such as the “bilum” it will be an easy decision. But what about other issues more specific and important to our people?

    I quite like your idea Dionisia, of starting from a “village model” and working through your Four Phases. The “village model” would be the ideal starting point and it should be easy to manage – note, I do did say “SHOULD BE”. lol.

    However, one point I find very sensitive is, who will be given the authority to be charge of such an Office? By registering ICIP our people will essentially reveal it to the public (with protection).

    One thing is for certain, if the Pacific does establish an ICIP office for the people of the Pacific, it should be owned, it should be operated, it should be staffed, it should be managed, and it should be FUNDED by Pacific countries.

    And no, that DOES NOT include Australia or New Zealand.


  7. Hey T, there’s actually an interesting case currently pending in the courts in PNG of a K52 million compensation against Post PNG for the use of the pictures of sacred traditional clay pot ornaments and the sculpture of a spirit figure being used on stamps. Don’t know a lot about the case but you can read here:

    I thought the case if successful can be a break through in patenting and protecting our sacred traditional artefacts, images, and even indigenous knowledge.

  8. Hi Solo,

    I’ve been following the case in the Media. The outcome of this case is going to be very interesting. I was going to mention it in my post but I thought I’d let it sit until we knew the result.

    It’s good to know that there are other like-minded people both in PNG and the Pacific that want to see some sort of initiative developed that will protect our ICIP.

    At the end of the day, our ICIP (indigenous cultural and intellectual property) IS WHO WE ARE. IT IS US.


  9. Hi Tavurvur,

    In response to your question:
    “Would you know the latest development in regard to Australian Federal authorities acting on Terri Janke’s research?”

    To quote from the YARN UP (autumn 2009) article ‘Toward a national cultural authority’:

    ‘So far there has been no formal government response
    to the proposal for an authority, which was one of the
    recommendations of the 2020 Summit. Despite this, Terri
    says, there is still ‘a good basis from which Indigenous
    people can advocate and lobby for the discussion and
    development of ideas to further protect our cultural and
    intellectual property rights.’

    I also looked through the 2020 Summit website and could not find any further information.

    I have emailed Terri Janke’s office seeking her support and advice.

  10. […] Read the original here:  Tropical Islands of the South Pacific Could Be Ripped Off … […]

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