Indigenius: The exploited potential of indigenous knowledge

Article Written by Dagny Yenko
Illustration by Matthew Profeta
Posted 26 February 2022

Two years ago, a study on the ethnomedicinal plants of the Agusan Manobo tribe in Mindanao has shown that some of their vast array of folk medicine, passed down from generation to generation, is comparable to that of commercial drugs. Many are endemic to the highlands of Agusan del Sur. The different parts of plants, ranging from trees to climbers, are used to treat a wide variety of ailments. [1]

Up north in the Cordillera, when COVID-19 had first risen in the Philippines, a number of provinces had invoked an indigenous form of lockdown called tengao which is usually declared as a rest period following festivities or particular agricultural seasons. During this ritual, physical barriers like mounds of soil and wooden gates prohibited everyone from entering or leaving the community. These rituals wielded respect rather than mere obedience and they were able to remain virus-free for more than a month, with Mt. Province being able to last even longer. [2, 3, 4, 5]

These are just a couple examples of the ways in which indigenous communities survive and thrive alongside the environment. The knowledge of indigenous peoples has varying terms, such as indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge, or folk science, but however they are defined, the idea is more or less the same: these are their systems and technologies, their culture and values, and more, that they’ve developed within their conditions and passed down orally across generations. [6]

Indigenous knowledge is ripe with potential to advance research and development, and certain groups know this. However, instead of supporting them and collaborating with them, many would rather take the knowledge for their own gain. In a similar way that Guglielmo Marconi was not the first to invent the radio, these groups would take credit for local knowledge by patenting it in order to commercialize them as products.

These cases are known as acts of biopiracy in which “corporations from the industrialized nations claim ownership of, free ride on, or otherwise take unfair advantage of the genetic resources and traditional knowledge and technologies of developing countries.” [7]

In the Philippines, a number of such incidents have occurred. One of the most notorious of them is that of the SNX 111, a toxin isolated from the Philippine sea snail (Conus magnus), which was developed into a painkiller that is up to 1,000 times stronger than morphine. The US pharmaceutical firm Neurex Inc. worked with scientists from the University of the Philippines Marine Sciences Institute and the University of Utah, as well as with indigenous people, for its development before shamelessly patenting it and subsequently raking in millions of dollars for the company and not a single cent towards our Filipino scientists and IPs. [8] Other foreign patents on our endemic species include the Ampalaya, Ilang-ilang, Banaba, and Nata de coco. [8] 

Even more abhorrent still, a Swiss drug company known as Hoffman-La Roche took advantage of the vulnerable state of the Aeta after the infamous disaster of the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Tricking the people into believing they were here for medical aid, these foreigners collected the Aeta people’s gene samples for the Human Genome Diversity Project of Stanford University which was apparently aimed at “collecting, analyzing and preserving genetic samples from a host of vanishing human populations”— Preserving vanishing populations? Really? How demeaning! [8] Not only were the Aeta deceived, but the very material of their existence was taken from them without their informed consent.

Which begs the question, what right do they have to collect wealth out of exploiting our natural resources and people? Don’t we have laws against this? But even then, what good are laws if those tasked to uphold them don’t do their jobs?

The exploitation of our environment and indigenous communities is not solely being done by corporations overseas. We, unfortunately, even exploit ourselves. Not only do governments play a major role in the business of biotrade; they are precisely in charge of the very management of our natural resources and the Philippine government is no exception. Alas, rampant deforestation, mining, and other destructive industries remain improperly regulated. The Philippine government shows a complete disregard for our resources and our people. These destructive practices are directly displacing indigenous communities from their livelihoods and ancestral domains, going so far as to deploy state forces to drive these people out. Those lands are not only their homes, but their identity and their culture.

What are these actions geared towards? In the face of gross violations of human rights, who should benefit from this “development”? IPs deserve better than this blatant exploitation and oppression. At this point, it’s clear that there is a distinction between the motivations of the state and the indigenous peoples.

The government’s idea of development is directed towards generating profit. To them, the environment is just another source of wealth that they can extract and sell to foreign powers. Judging by the many cases of IP killings, smear campaigns, arrests, and more, they see human beings as hindrances. In the past 8 years, the Philippines remains the deadliest country in Asia for environmental defenders. [9]

For indigenous communities, land is life. It is a resource that they share and care for, as it directly influences the way they live their lives. It is their culture, their livelihood, their traditions. To them, development means progressing with the environment, acknowledging that it is a part of us. With that, their systems and practices are tailored to be sustainable and non-destructive. Living on these lands for generations naturally allowed them to carefully study the best way to live alongside it, and they have the results to show for it too as seen by their successful, underrated conservation efforts. [10]

With the continuous fight for climate justice amidst the alarming effects of global warming, all the more value should be placed on indigenous knowledge. At the same time, all the more pressure should be placed on our government for tolerating and being the source of impunity against environmental defenders.

Passing and upholding unambiguous, sturdier laws on the protection of traditional knowledge is good, but, along with this, emphasizing indigenous peoples’ right to develop is also key. Who would be more capable of leading research and development efforts on their knowledge but they themselves? The ba-ag or tapis are equally as skillful as the white coats in handling their fields of expertise. In fact, we may learn a thing or two from the unique perspective that they bring. It is vital to listen to the wisdom and sciences of indigenous communities, to let them claim what is rightfully theirs, and potentially reminding us exactly who research and development is for.


  1. Dapar ML, Meve U, Liede-Schumann S, Alejandro GJD. Ethnomedicinal appraisal and conservation status of medicinal plants among the Manobo tribe of Bayugan City, Philippines. Biodiversitas [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2022 Feb 15];21(8):3843-3855. Available from doi: 10.13057/biodiv/d210854
  2. Lapniten K. In a Philippine indigenous stronghold, traditions keep COVID-19 at bay. Mongabay [Internet]. 2020 Apr 21 [cited 2022 Feb 22]. Available from
  3. Lapniten K. Coping with crisis, the Cordillera way. Philippine Daily Inquirer [Internet]. 2020 Apr 26 [cited 2022 Feb 15]. Available from
  4. Agoot L. 3 Cordillera provinces still Covid-19-free. Philippine News Agency [Internet]. 2020 Apr 30 [cited 2022 Feb 15]. Available from
  5. COVID-19 reaches Mountain Province. CNN Philippines [Internet]. 2020 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Feb 15]. Available from
  6. Biangalen-Magata H, Bugtong-Biano M, Kitma A, Cadalig-Batang-Ay J, Daguitan F, Dictaan-Bang-oa E et al. Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices in the Philippines: Status and Trends [Internet]. Baguio City (PH): Tebtebba Foundation; 2020 [cited 2022 Feb 16]. Available from
  7. Bautista L. Bioprospecting or Biopiracy: Does the TRIPS Agreement Undermine the Interests of Developing Countries?. Philippine Law Journal [Internet] 2007 [cited 2022 Feb 15];82(1):14-33. Available from
  8. Bengwayan MA. Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Asia [Internet]. Minority Rights Group International; 2003 May 22 [cited 2022 Feb 15]. Available from
  9. Bolledo J. For 8th straight year, PH is Asia’s deadliest country for land defenders. Rappler [Internet]. 2021 Sep 13 [cited 2022 Feb 16]. Available from
  10. ICC Consortium. Territories of Life: 2021 Report [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2022 Feb 16]. Available from

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