Introduction by Croakey: Amid a global focus on the importance of traditional medicines, stronger protections are needed for Indigenous Knowledges in Australia, according to Dr Alana Gall, a Pakana woman who was recently elected Vice-President, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, of the Public Health Association of Australia.
Below, she reports on the first World Health Organization Traditional Medicine Global Summit held in India.
Alana Gall writes:
The World Health Organization (WHO) held the very first WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit on 17 and 18 August in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. This saw a flurry of commotion on the social media platform X (previously Twitter) after they posted a controversial thread, which encouraged and supported building evidence for the integration of traditional medicines into conventional health systems.
The tweet reached 5.5 million views and even caught the attention of platform X’s new owner, Elon Musk.
This controversy largely centred around a lack of understanding of what the definition of traditional medicine is from a WHO perspective. WHO’s definition also includes complementary and integrative medicines, like homeopathy, which sceptics argued does not constitute ‘traditional medicine’ as it was developed in the late 18th century.
This then led to a stream of comments, accusing the WHO of promoting pseudoscience, largely citing homeopathy and other controversial practices as their basis for this. The WHO responded by providing clarity around what their definition of traditional medicine entails, as well as reiterating that the WHO “…aims to bring evidence and scientific validation around traditional medicine…” so that they can assess “…whether it’s safe and effective…”.
In his opening address, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, stated that he hoped the Summit would be used to “…unlock the power of traditional medicine through science and innovation”.
Implications for First Nations medicines
But what does this focus on ‘building evidence’ using ‘science and innovation’ mean for our First Nations traditional medicines in Australia?
Globally 88 percent of countries report use of traditional medicines and over 40 percent of pharmaceutical drugs used today are based on compounds found in natural products. For example, metformin, the most popular drug used to treat type 2 diabetes globally, was originally developed from Galega officinalis, a traditional herbal medicine from Europe.
While the use of natural products as a basis for pharmaceuticals is somewhat well known, a lesser-known fact is around the exploitation of First Nations traditional medicine knowledge in Australia.
For example, the commercial production of a drug made from Duboisia myoporoides (commonly known as corkwood), a hybrid of Australian native shrubs used by First Nations peoples as a sedative and painkiller, is now the backbone of a lucrative multi-million dollar industry in Australia.
Early colonists were interested in this plant, having seen First Nations people using it. However, it was not until three Yarluyandi men from the north-eastern area of South Australia “…brought a sample of [the plant], just taken out of a trench in the sand, where it undergoes a process of sweating before use” (p.207) that they had the key to unlock the plant’s secrets.
But are First Nations knowledges acknowledged as the basis for this? Do First Nations peoples gain any benefit from sharing their knowledge?
Seven weeks prior to the Summit, I was asked to speak at a virtual dialogue with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and a group of WHO senior officials, about Indigenous traditional medicines from a global perspective.
At the dialogue coordinated by the TCIH Coalition, I chose to highlight:
- the urgent need for the protection of Indigenous Knowledges through appropriate legislation
- the importance of including respectful approaches to the integration of Indigenous traditional medicines into each country’s health policies, and
- the need for the WHO to hold a regular forum that brings Indigenous voices together globally on these issues.
Lastly, I made it clear that these three requests need to be Indigenous-led and Indigenous-informed, with genuine Indigenous involvement, and upholding our Indigenous worldview where the collective is considered more important than the individual.
On day one of the Summit, after the WHO Director-General and the Indian Government’s Minister of Ayush spoke, the WHO played a video highlighting views of civil societies and Indigenous peoples.
Across the two days of the Summit I heard other incredible Indigenous people speak, including Associate Professor Nicole Redvers from Western University in Canada (a climate action warrior who also spoke at the adjoining G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting), Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Ricardo Weibe Nascimento Costa, the Vice-minister for the Health of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil.
Then, on the last day in the final session, the icing on the cake was hearing the Gujarat Declaration on Traditional Medicine.
It emphasised the important role that Indigenous Knowledges play in global healthcare and the advancement of science; acknowledged that our knowledge is diverse, evolving and a “…valuable resource for humanity”; and included a call for the WHO and other United Nations agencies to hold fora with Indigenous peoples.
Then, once the official Gujarat Declaration was published on 2 September 2023, they included multiple calls for the proper protection of Indigenous Knowledges, fair and equitable sharing of benefits and intellectual property rights arising from the use of Indigenous Knowledges:
Ensure full participation of, and consultation with, Indigenous Peoples, including through the establishment of a formal high-level consultation mechanism with Indigenous Peoples linked to the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, to develop, adopt and support the implementation of policies and actions related to the protection of traditional and Indigenous knowledges of health and medicine.”
While this is all positive and a definite move in the right direction, the reality for us here in Australia is our First Nations traditional medicines are not adequately protected by our laws.
So how then can we work towards ‘building evidence’, using ‘science and innovation’, when it is not safe for us to do so?
As I step into the Deadly shoes of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Vice Presidents of the Public Health Association of Australia who came before me, Dr Summer May Finlay and Associate Professor Michelle Kennedy, I will use this platform to advocate for the inclusion of respectful approaches to the integration of our First Nations traditional medicines into Australian health policies.
For First Nations peoples in Australia, and other Indigenous peoples as well, our concepts of health and wellbeing are holistic, moving beyond the common rhetoric around holism, including reciprocal relationships with our family, our community and our land. Biomedical approaches to health often do not meet our complex holistic health and wellbeing needs; however, our own traditional medicines do.
Also, I will continue to advocate, both in Australia and globally, for the true protection of all Indigenous Knowledges.
We as Indigenous peoples know that our intricate understanding of our lands and our medicines, have so much to offer everyone, but without appropriate protection the sharing of our knowledge will expose our cultures to further subjugation and our communities to harm.
All too often we are framed as a problem that needs fixing, but we are part of the solution; one that will benefit all human and planetary health.
Currently, work is underway at IP Australia to help address some of these complex issues.
If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person and would like to help shape a better Intellectual Property system for Indigenous Knowledges, the Indigenous Knowledges Project team would like to hear from you: email IKProject@ipaustralia.gov.au.
Also see, in The Lancet: WHO’s new vision for traditional medicine