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Knowledge protection in indigenous communities: the case of indigenous medical knowledge systems in Zimbabwe

By Alex Tawanda Magaisa


This study examines the contentious issues relating to the exploitation of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) within the context of the expanding regime of intellectual property law (IP law). The study focuses specifically on the area of indigenous medical knowledge (IMK) within the geographical context of Zimbabwe as a country case study. The study examines the centrality of knowledge in the global economy and using international political economic theory and practice, demonstrates why it is a key site of struggles between and among nations and various stakeholders. While it considers the narrow issue of the applicability or otherwise of IP law to IKS, this study takes the approach that it is necessary to understand the socio-historical developments that account for the peripheral status of IKS in relation to the dominant western knowledge systems (WKS). A key argument of this study is that the lack of legal protection of IKS is directly connected to their marginal status in social, intellectual, cultural and economic terms arising from the dominance of the predominantly WKS. It is argued that far from being a narrow legalistic debate, the matter of the protection of IKS is a wider socio-cultural, economic and political issue that centres on the power relations between and among people, corporations and states. Through a combination of theoretical and field investigations, the study seeks to explore the factors that account for the marginalisation of IKS generally and IMK systems in particular. The “struggle thesis” demonstrates that from an historical viewpoint knowledge systems are in a state of constant interaction and struggle resulting in problems. The key to resolving the problems is to acknowledge difference and accept the legitimacy and validity of different knowledge systems and to democratise the regime of knowledge protection both nationally and globally. It proposes that solutions lie in not only reconstructing the legal architecture but also in ensuring that the social, economic and political structures are reconstructed to safeguard and nurture the IKS. The study investigates the needs and expectations of the indigenous communities including their rationale for the protection of their knowledge systems. Finally, it also contributes to the development of indigenous research methodologies

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