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Journal of American Folklore 117.465 (2004) 325-336

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On the Politics of the Politics of Origins:

Social (In)Justice and the International Agenda on Intellectual Property, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore

It is a great pleasure to read Valdimar Hafstein's essay, and I applaud the Journal of American Folklore for publishing an article that raises critical issues at the intersections of folkloristics, cultural conservation, political economy, and social justice. Hafstein's essay nicely echoes the conclusion of Peggy Bulger's recent AFS presidential address (2003:388) in focusing attention on an international debate and arena of great importance to the cultures folklorists study and champion. I believe Hafstein's most significant contribution is his emphasis on the political and economic ecologies of formalized agendas in fora on cultural conservation and protection. National and international governmental agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations, have attended to legal issues regarding the commerce and protection of traditional culture for at least the past seventy years; however, the number of actors and institutions, as well as the levels (especially national and international) at which this debate occurs, has greatly increased over the past two decades (Drahos and Mayne 2002). The history and arenas vary according to particular categories of knowledge and folklore, but today an overview of even relevant United Nations groups would include not only the target of Hafstein's essay—the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)—but also, among others, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).1 Each of these latter three institutions has established international discussions, as well as international instruments,2 with significant implications for traditional knowledge and folklore and, most important, the "holders" of these traditions.3 [End Page 325]

Equally impressive is the growth of community-based organizations (CBO), indigenous collectives, international and regional nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and other groups concerned with cultural issues. Hafstein notes the attendance of more than fifty NGOs at the meeting of WIPO's Intergovernmental Committee on Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore (IGC) in December 2002. Of course, not all of these representatives traveled to Geneva to speak for the rights of traditional knowledge and folklore communities. Those in attendance to argue on behalf of these groups make up just a tiny fraction of the CBOs and NGOs that constitute a new global social movement for which cultural identity and conservation are intrinsically interwoven into broader agendas of economic, political, and environmental justice. Attending meetings in Geneva is certainly too expensive for the bulk of these groups. Moreover, there remains widespread concern among many organizations that this particular forum is not as "friendly" to their needs (in comparison, for example, to FAO or CBD), and many participants share a sense that the debate, as well as the sponsoring organization, has been effectively captured (in a political economy sense) by the members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Whether or not these apprehensions are realized still remains to be seen, but we should not assume that the dominance of governmental delegations and rhetoric in this particular discussion means that the communities and peoples affected are any less concerned. Hafstein's article is not explicitly about the social action struggles of traditional knowledge and folklore holders, but I would suggest that the everyday and widely dispersed activities of numerous social action collectives are very germane both to the goals of this IGC and to folklorists who want to weigh in on these controversies.

Hafstein is absolutely right to identify the ideological, economic, and political underpinnings of academic discourse and the potential and actual importance of this discourse to real world events well outside of university, arts council, or performance venues. I suspect that the contributions of debates in folklorists' intellectual circles fall, rather, under the rubric of "potential" impact. I find little evidence, for example, that any of the nonfolklorist members of the U.S. delegation have much...


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