Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, TK and IP Management: a trip report

An elderly medicine man from the Bidayuh community at Semadang Village explaining to the staff and family members of Bioversity-APO about the various uses of medicinal plants conserved at the village garden.

photo by G.H.Teh

 The weekend before last was special.  The Bioversity-APO office, where I’m hosted, organised a trip for their staff and family members to Kuching.  This beautiful city is located in Sarawak, the biggest state in Malaysia which probably has the richest biodiversity in the country.  When we arrived on Friday morning, we were transported to the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC) ( for a visit and tour of their facility. SBC has been involved in various projects on traditional knowledge (TK) documentation with indigenous communities for about 10 years now (click here for more information – publication sharefair2009 PN).  During this time, they have managed to collect and document TK and information of various medicinal plants, and to subsequently conduct research to “discover chemicals and enzymes…that would be useful over a broad range of applications as industrial related products such as essential oils, bio-pesticides and commercial dyes” (see: SBC’s Bioprospecting Programme -).

GHT delivering her talk

photo by Chan Yunn Horng

As part of the visit, I presented a talk on IP management (see – SBC Presentation by GHTeh), by sharing experiences in the CGIAR system on various issues. 



From conversations with the Chief Executive Officer of SBC, Dr Rita Manurung, I have been apprised of the following IP challenges faced by the institution:

a)       Formation of an IP policy for SBC and the state of Sarawak;

b)       Development of in-house IP capacity to assist with IP management and implementation;

c)       Providing access to genetic resources and associated TK in a way that respects and takes into account the contribution of indigenous communities in Sarawak; and

d)       Developing benefit-sharing mechanisms for use of genetic resources and associated TK by third parties.

 Although my visit was very brief, the impression I got about SBC was very encouraging.  They have been pioneers in Malaysia for TK documentation and it is highly likely that this state institution is well on its way to strategise on taking their TK inventory and discoveries to the next level.  “We cannot stop the progress of science and technology”, says Dr Manurung.  To this, I can only say that IP must be an enabling tool for us to share with the world the wonders of biodiversity and the many promises that it can potentially bring for mankind.

Post written by Guat Hong Teh, legal specialist for CAS-IP.

3 responses to “Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, TK and IP Management: a trip report

  1. What is the general feeling about publication of TK especially TK on the use of biodiversity for medicine and health? I often come across books that not only provide information on the use of the plants but also with pictures of the practitioner and even methods and recipes. The work may have been funded through a project and the authors benefited through sale of the book. What about the source of information? What do they get? a token sum?

  2. Hi Rita! Thanks for visiting our blogsite!

    Your question makes me wonder about the practice of the CGIAR centres when conducting participatory plant breeding with farmers. Do you think we can draw analogies that would be useful from that process?

    My personal opinion is that the question of ‘what do they get’ is not one with a straightforward answer. In some cases, attribution is sufficient; in others, a more tangible benefit is desirable. I wonder if we should spend more time developing tools and methodologies that would help and empower communities to make a decision for themselves about what these options could possibly be. What do others think?

  3. There is the chicken and egg anology but the answer is not with science but with religion, the chicken came first. So in the TK on medicinal plants, the ownership belongs to the community no argument. Pubilicity in publication is needed to empower the communities. However there should be guidelines for the community to ensure that they provide the use but not the full recipes (until they can protect it). Empowerment here is about services that the communities can offer using their medicinal plants. Urban folks will revert to TM when modern medicine fails and insame way Rural folks seek MM when TM fails. Using knowledge to provide services.

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