Protecting cultural and economic rights of indigenous people by recording traditional ecological knowledge

The Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has created an online searchable database of traditional ecological knowledge to prevent private companies from patenting that knowledge. The Traditional Ecological Knowledge Prior Art Database (T.E.K.*P.A.D.) is located at

Indigenous people all over the world have systematically cultivated plants and developed methods of using them for the benefit of their communities. Companies from the developed world have in some cases patented this knowledge without the permission of the communities themselves. The patents allow the holders to control the use and sale of the subject of the patent for a period of time, without any obligation to share profits with the com­munities. In some cases, the patent holder may be able to prevent those communities from using or benefiting from their own knowledge.

The database helps end this by making indigenous knowledge available in the public domain, thus defining it as “prior art.” An invention can be patented only if it is new, useful and not obvious. If the invention or knowledge has been published somewhere — one form of what is called prior art — it is demonstrably not new. Traditional knowl­edge has been vulnerable to patenting by outside corporations because it has rarely been published anywhere or, if it has, is often overlooked.

Once the information is added to the database it is more easily located by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USP­TO) and other patenting authorities during prior art searches. AAAS actively researches traditional knowledge that is unprotected and in the public domain, then adds the information to the database to further protect it.

T.E.K.*P.A.D also allows people to submit entries. Individuals who submit entries must prove that they have prior consent from their communities. AAAS encourages communities to explore the issues associated with various options, including applying for patents themselves, before adding their knowledge to the database. A handbook developed to help communities evaluate their options is available at
T.E.K.*P.A.D.’s database currently protects 30,000 plants cultivated and managed by indigenous communities from patent exploitation.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Many indigenous groups have found their ways of life greatly diminished when private corporations patent their traditional knowledge. A national science organization is working to stop this from happening.

When private corporations are allowed to hold patents on traditional knowledge that may form the basis of some communities’ livelihoods, those communities may lose their cultural and economic rights. When they are no longer allowed to use that knowledge, or are forced to pay royalties, their livelihoods and traditions may be irreparably destroyed. The use of a recording and publishing tactic helps prevent that from happening.

It is intriguing that technology is being used to protect indigenous peoples’ right to benefit from knowledge that is, in some cases, hundreds or thousands of years old. Online databases have also been used to build awareness of abuse, such as high levels of pollution in impoverished areas or widespread corruption, or to pressure for policy changes.