Trading traditional knowledge: San perspectives from South Africa, Namibia and Botswana

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One of the most controversial aspects of the access and benefit-sharing debate is the way in which traditional knowledge is used and commercialized. Many critics have pointed out the inherent contradictions between traditional knowledge systems, which are typically collective, based on sharing and of a non-barter nature, and Western approaches to knowledge protection such as patenting, which by contrast are monopolistic and individualistic. Few, if any, empirical studies have documented the relationship between these systems and community perceptions of the so-called commodification of traditional knowledge. Based on fieldwork conducted in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, this chapter examines how these issues are perceived by San communities.
While indigenous peoples are often portrayed in the literature as homogeneous groups voicing uniform opinions, the scenario surveys used in the fieldwork clearly indicate that within the communities studied, there were many different opinions on whether or not to commodify traditional knowledge. This diversity of voices is not surprising when one takes into account the local context or the current and historical socio-economic and political circumstances of individuals and communities.
Although there was widespread acceptance of commodification in principle, it is important to be aware of its cultural, symbolic, and economic value. At the same time, the scenario surveys showed that many respondents wanted to keep control of their knowledge rather than part with it for economic benefit (royalties) only. Notably, a gender divide could be observed, with women more likely to settle for royalties – to finance their children's education, for instance – and men more likely to either reject all commodification or opt to be co-holders of patents.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIndigenous Peoples, Consent and Benefit Sharing
Subtitle of host publicationLessons Learned from San Hoodia Case
EditorsRachel Wynberg, Doris Schroeder, Roger Chennells
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9789048131228
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2009


  • benefit sharing
  • commodification
  • indigenous communities

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