Caring for traditional knowledge – or caring for the world’s skin

Tuesday August 11, 2020 Written by Published in Culture
Dr Teina Rongo describes traditional planting methods to Tereora College students, up Takuvaine Valley last week. 20080728 Dr Teina Rongo describes traditional planting methods to Tereora College students, up Takuvaine Valley last week. 20080728

Should Cook Islands Maori share with the world their generations-old understanding of plants, medicines and food properties, for the greater good – or should they hold onto that knowledge?

Cook Islands traditional knowledge about the healing properties of native trees is being shared with the world – at a price.

The Koutu Nui, made up of traditional leaders, is a signatory to Access and Benefit Sharing agreements intended to recognise and protect local communities' rights to native species and the associated traditional knowledge.

An Australian environmental management professor says an example of how it works is sharing the leaders’ knowledge of medicinal plants, or implementing ra’ui controls on gathering seafood.

“Ra'ui have come back, there's been a resurgence of it,” says Daniel Robinson, Professor of Environmental Management at the University of New South Wales.

“Traditional leaders, the Koutu Nui are involved in the marine conservation areas and they’re the beneficiaries of that benefit-sharing agreement,” he argues.

“They receive some benefits – some money and support from that agreement – and it goes towards things like aged care, as well as marine conservation, education, awareness, that sort of thing.”

Robinson a recent interview explained the Nagoya Protocol and ‘access and benefit-sharing’.

He says he did a case study of the CIMTECH-Koutu Nui agreement relating to ‘Taunga’ for bone healing that Dr Graham Matheson (CIMTECH) was researching.

“his seemed like a very positive case where a benefit-sharing agreement was set up, so I wrote a book chapter about it and also worked on a UNDP project pre-proposal to get some additional funds towards the research and also the Cook Government implementation of Nagoya Protocol and ABS policies with National Environment Service.”

He said this was all several years ago, but brought it up in a recent interview as a good example.

Not everyone thinks Cook Islands Maori are getting a fair shake of the sauce bottle.  Environment group Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau would prefer that knowledge of traditional medicine should not be shared to the rest of the world.

Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau chairperson Dr Teina Rongo said he had personally expressed his concern at the Access and Benefit Sharing consultation a few years ago, regarding the knowledge of Cook Islands traditional medicine practitioners being shared. 

“For me, and this is also the view of Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau, we prefer that we teach our traditional knowledge on medicine to our own people rather than sharing this to the rest of the world.”

He said Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau taught the making of traditional medicines in its Atuianga ki te Tango school holiday programmes, as an effort to encourage knowledge-holders to transfer that knowledge to the next generation. 

Koutu Nui president Terea Mataiapo Paul Allsworth said he would comment later this week.

Professor Robinson has been working with indigenous people in Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands for the past 15 years, to assert their rights in relation to biodiscovery, indigenous knowledge and intellectual property, resources and land rights.

They were protecting the rights of locals in the development of compounds that may have commercial applications, such as pharmaceuticals, skincare and insecticides.

“Universities working in biodiscovery often partner with companies to finance their research on, for example, new molecules for drugs and medicines, new food products, herbal supplements, traditional medicines, cosmetics, creams and healthcare products,” he explained.

One of the companies that was commercialising local plans and knowledge is CIMTECH, Cook Islands' Medical Technology Ltd.

The company’s founder, Sydney-based Cook Islander Dr Graham Matheson, signed up the Koutu Nui as shareholders. Back in 2011, they started planning koariki trees and using them to create a line of skin care products, branded Te Tika.

In 2017, Te Tika sponsored the Miss Cook Islands pageant.

Professor Robinson said the Koutu Nui was a beneficiary of the CIMTECH agreement, enabling them to support aged care, marine management and other activities.

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