Protecting Indigenous Knowledge

What is Indigenous Knowledge?

A useful definition taken from the Discussion Paper on Indigenous Knowledge: Issues for protection and management, refers to knowledge coming from Indigenous Australians in two distinct categories;

•             Traditional Knowledge (TK) refers to the knowledge resulting from intellectual activity in a traditional context, and includes know-how, practices, skills and innovations. Traditional Knowledge can be found in a wide variety of contexts, including: agricultural knowledge; scientific knowledge; technical knowledge; ecological knowledge; medicinal knowledge, including related medicines and remedies; cosmology; and biodiversity-related knowledge. This includes knowledge about genetic resources.

•             Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCE) also referred to as ‘expressions of folklore’ refers to tangible and intangible forms in which traditional knowledge and cultures are expressed, communicated or manifested. Examples include languages, music, performances, literature, song lines, stories and other oral traditions, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, narratives, names and symbols, designs, visual art and crafts and architecture.

Why should Indigenous Knowledge be protected?

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 and Article 31 states;

Article 31:

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and

develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural

expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and

cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of

the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and

traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to

maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural

heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.


The Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance is concerned primarily with protecting Indigenous Knowledge in the area of native plants, including the Kakadu Plum/Gubinge. It is only through Indigenous Knowledge developed over many centuries that we know today, the Kakadu Plum is good to eat and can be used as a medicine. The challenge is making sure Aboriginal people benefit from their Indigenous Knowledge.

It has been suggested Indigenous Australians use more than 200 plant species for food[1], and a greater number for medicinal purposes[2].  This knowledge has given impetus to a growing bushfood industry which in 2010 was estimated as having a farm gate value of $15 million to $25 million (AUD) with industry employment estimated at between 500 to 1,000 people with up to half said to be Indigenous people living on remote communities[3]. Other studies indicate similar figures of $10 million to $16 million (AUD) for the value of the bushfood industry with growing demand[4], and the Kakadu Plum Industry was estimated at $240,000 (AUD) in 2012 with a harvest of 12 tonnes of whole fruit[5].  A study of stakeholder enterprises in the native foods industry shows the vast majority are non-Aboriginal, with only an estimated 23% of stakeholder businesses being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander[6].  This situation raises concerns as to whether Indigenous Australians are the direct beneficiaries of bushfood enterprises and whether they have control of Indigenous Knowledge used in the native food sector.  The value of Indigenous Knowledge to the bushfood sector is not only technical knowledge of the characteristics of plants but also the value derived from how Indigenous Knowledge is expressed as stories which have a commercial ‘brand value’.

IP Australia has prepared a number of documents in relation to considerations and issues involving Indigenous Knowledge including the Discussion Paper cited above.

Other resources on protecting Indigenous Knowledge include Traditional Ecological Knowledge handbook.


NAAKPA submission to IP Australia

In February 2019, The NAAKPA Steering Committee made a submission to IP Australia about strategies on protecting Indigenous Knowledge in the bushfoods space, making the recommendations below.  The full submission can be download here.

Recommendation 1: 

To increase the number of Aboriginal stakeholder enterprises in the bush foods sector, the Australian Government needs to provide a greater range of business investment opportunities and capacity building resources for Aboriginal communities to build enterprises so they can benefit directly from their Indigenous Knowledge in relation to bushfoods and native plants and animals.

Recommendation 2:

Australia needs to ratify the Nagoya Protocol and harmonise state and territory jurisdictions to recognise and protect Indigenous Knowledge utilising the Nagoya Protocol framework. Indigenous peoples have the right to control how their traditional knowledge is exploited in relation to bushfoods.

Recommendation 3:

IP Australia introduce a due diligence process for patent and plant breeder rights applications whereby applications involving native plant or animal species are required to produce evidence of an access and benefit sharing agreement where Indigenous Knowledge has been utilised.  The onus of providing evidence of an Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement should be placed on the applicant seeking the patent.


For more information on the Nagoya Protocol and Access and Benefit Sharing Agreements is available here.

[1] Lee, L S 2012 ‘Horticultural development of bush food plants and rights of Indigenous people as traditional custodians- The Australian bush tomato example: a review’ The Rangeland Journal, 34(4): 359-373

[2] Lassak, E and McCarthy T 2011 ‘Australian medicinal plants: a complete guide to identification and usage, 2nd edition, Chatswood, NSW Reed New Holland.

[3] Clarke, M 2013, ‘Native Foods R & D Priorities and Strategies 2013-2018, RIRDC Publication No 13/023, page 4-5, viewed 09/12/18:

[4] PwC Indigenous Consulting, 2017 ‘Emerging Business Models for the Kakadu Plum Industry’, Agrifutures Australia Publication No 18/003 pg 15, viewed 18/12/18,

[5] Ibid, pg 23.

[6] PwC Indigenous Consulting, 2017 ‘ Native Foods Export Roadmap’ for Australian Native Food Industry Limited, pg 19.

Contact NAAKPA