Samoan traditional knowledge put under microscope

By Sapeer Mayron 25 November 2019, 12:00PM

Laws governing traditional knowledge in Samoa is the subject of a doctorate study undertaken by Samoan doctoral candidate Solamalemalo Hai Yuean Tualima at the Australian University of New South Wales.

Ms. Solamalemalo is two years into her four year study on what Samoa considers traditional knowledge, what frameworks exist to protect it and whether there needs to be more work done.

She has interviewed more than 30 people across Samoa who deal in traditional healing, handicrafts, fashion and more to uncover how broad a scope ‘traditional knowledge’ takes, in order to see best how it needs to be regulated for its protection.

Whilst there is the Convention of Biological Diversity and other related UNESCO Conventions related to aspects of traditional knowledge, there is still no specific international instrument on the protection of traditional knowledge.

 Solamalemalo said the World Intellectual Property Organisation has been hosting negotiations at the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) for over 20 years but with no results yet.

It’s a complex matter that every party involved in has a different perspective on, she said.

“All of these issues are based on the political will of the countries. The political will is here in Samoa, but there are challenges moving forward.

“Governments sign up to international instruments so they have international obligations to adhere to and they have got to implement these instruments.

“The commercial operators, obviously they need to make money and the same goes for the village.

“But overall, cultural survival and ensuring these practices continue for generations to come is what is at the heart of everything.”

Cultural survival may manifest in getting more value out of traditional knowledge depending on how the knowledge holder would like to use their specific knowledge.

Currently intellectual property rights provides a framework for the protection of traditional knowledge and this forms part of the protective framework of traditional knowledge, Ms. Solamalemalo explained.

A fashion designer can use the intellectual property framework to register a design, like the shape of a flower, or the arrangement of certain patterns.

But flowers are “God’s creations, open to the whole world to use,” so the registration of that design may not be suitable depending on your perspective, she said.

Another option is to register a trademark for distinctive marks. But trademarks are jurisdictional, meaning they only work in the country where they were made, and doesn’t necessarily provide protection outside Samoa.

And that is at the crux of the matter: protecting Samoan traditional knowledge from misappropriation or commercialisation, especially if it means Samoan people see no benefits from it and knowledge is not preserved for generations to come.

With globalisation, new technology and cheaper production, the layered issues of culture and rights to knowledge evolve constantly, said Solamalemalo.

“Culture evolves, and yet you have this fixed framework and somehow you have to find a way to protect traditional knowledge. There is this real conundrum in how you deal with that.

“There are [many] factors that have made cultural survival even more integral for indigenous people and local communities. That is what it is about, their survival and being able to maintain their own cultural integrity.”

She said throughout the interview phase of her research, people have told her there is a need for an answer to the myriad of questions on how to protect Samoan resources and traditional knowledge.

Her interview subjects have also taken comfort in the fact that she herself a Samoan.

“There is a responsibility I have, to serve not only my community but the wider Pacific,” Ms. Solamalemalo said.

“This is something important to me, personally. It's more important than professional development and a couple of letters after your name.”

At the end of her research, she will have produced a 100,000 word thesis. However, knowing how few people in the villages where these traditional works are being made might read it, Ms. Solamalemalo hopes to bring her findings back to the community in a more accessible way.

“I am hoping to have some sort of impact in the legal discussion, in policy, but also help the person in the community,” she said.

“Often researchers gather information then they go away and you never see them again. I would like to find ways to communicate this knowledge to people, if it's helpful. If it's not, that is okay too.”

Ms. Solamalemalo is a lawyer who helped establish the National Human Rights Institution in the Office of the Ombudsman’s, and has worked in private legal practice in New Zealand specialising in Treaty of Waitangi negotiations.

If you wish to discuss these issues further with Ms. Solamalemalo, please contact her on [email protected]


By Sapeer Mayron 25 November 2019, 12:00PM

Trending Stories

Samoa Observer

Upgrade to Premium

Subscribe to
Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy unlimited access to all our articles on any device + free trial to e-Edition. You can cancel anytime.