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Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge: Equitable Partnerships in Practice

Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge: Equitable Partnerships in Practice. edited by Sarah A. Laird. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London; Sterling, Virginia, <>. 2002, paperback, v-xxxviii + 504 pp. ISBN 1-85383-698-2

The Commercial Use of Biodiversity: Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing. by Kerry ten Kate and Sarah A. Laird. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London, UK, <>. 1999, v-xvii + 398 pp., hardcover. ISBN 1-85383-334-7

These two books represent the state-of-the-art knowledge on the links between plants, people, cultures, products, profits, and ethics. Any company, scientist, herbalist, consumer, lawyer, government official, or curious person who wishes to learn how to work with local communities, traditional knowledge, and government agencies will find that these books provide information, case studies, and a wealth of detailed information. In fact, when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) marks its 10-year anniversary in Johannesburg, South Africa (called Rio + 10) this September, these books should be provided to every official delegate.

These books will be of increasing importance to any and all companies that create new plant-based products as well as to ethically minded consumers who use botanical medicines, dietary supplements, and many plant-based health and beauty aids. They could also serve as core texts for a wide variety of high school and college-level courses on phytomedicines, globalization, ethics, product development, anthropology, ethnobotany, and international law.

Just recently published, Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge is a spectacular contribution from the People and Plants Conservation Series, a collaboration of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This edited volume contains 21 case studies from 16 countries. The case studies examine fascinating relationships in such diverse countries as Fiji, Norway, South Africa, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Uganda, Panama, and many others.

The authors and contributors, all 75 of them, are leaders in their fields of expertise. They bring a broad range of backgrounds to this complex topic, including law, ethnobotany, conservation and environmental sciences, and the perspective of local communities. This book also provides an invaluable directory of useful contacts and resources, including national government access and benefit-sharing contacts in Brazil, Ecuador, India, Costa Rica, Fiji, and eight other countries. It lists the websites of inter-governmental organizations, selected NGOs, research institutes, and organizations that work on biodiversity research and prospecting issues, as well as contact information for indigenous people's organizations in many parts of the planet.

The second book, The Commercial Use of Biodiversity, is the perfect companion volume to Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge, and a very readable and engaging overview of access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing. Sections that focus on the botanical medicine industry, natural products for research, natural personal care and cosmetic industry, and horticulture will likely be of great interest to HerbalGram readers.

This book also provides numerous fascinating case studies. One of the most interesting and germane to natural products companies focuses on the marketing of a "public domain" plant species, annatto (Bixa orellana L., Bixaceae), a well-known source of red dye from the Amazon basin. The case study describes the relationship created by the Aveda Corporation with the indigenous Yawanana people in Brazil, detailing the entire process that Aveda has undertaken to work with these people, beginning in 1993. It is highly instructive to see the step-by-step evolution of such a project undertaken by a socially responsible company.

Another case study that I found of great interest discusses the development of a benefit-sharing partnership in Vietnam that focuses on a "new" species of Vietnamese ginseng (Panax vietnamensis Ha & Grushv., Araliaceae), which was not yet in international commerce.

Both of these books illuminate the how, who, where, and why of creating and maintaining equitable partnerships with local communities, national governments, and regional scientists while developing new products for a variety of marketplaces. These books build an excellent foundation in the fast-changing world of international ethics and benefit sharing. The next time you read a label, or hear a person or a company describe the ethical and socially responsible way that they have created a new product by working with the wisdom of indigenous cultures, you will be able to differentiate the short-term hustler from the more committed company or person.

Both of these books clearly show the links between the conservation of ecosystems, the needs of local communities, and the influence of the market economy. In this age of demonized globalization and events like 9/11, we all need to strive to create a more equitable, sharing, and collaborative business environment. My thanks to these authors for shining the light on how to do so in our complex and ever-changing multi-cultural universe.