Moral Reciprocity, Ethics of Appropriation of Indigenous Medicinal Plant Knowledge and Associated Biopiracy

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Abstract

Introduction: Although this paper deals mostly with the positive effects of a posthumanist worldview on environmental sustainability, partnership, or moral accountability in science and scientific research, it also promotes a new understanding of our educational practice in higher education. The ideas espoused have the ability to inspire educators at all levels to show students, future researchers or other professions about the importance of a progressive, holistic approach to our environment. We claim that being sensitive and caring for our environment is not only part of our moral and ethical responsibility, it is an inseparable aspect of our environmental education, our environmental intelligence. This paper discusses posthumanist1 reciprocity ethics in the context of traditional knowledge (TK) and the protection of indigenous traditional knowledge from commercial exploitation.

Methods: Instances of unethical bioprospecting and biopiracy were common throughout the turn of the 21st century and are discussed using cases in countries such as Cameroon, India, South Africa and Australia, where medicinal plant species were, are still a highly sought-after source of potent, pharmacologically active phytochemicals.

Results and discussion: The observed increase in regulations against bioprospecting on indigenous land in these countries as a result of intellectual property monopoly by big pharmaceutical companies is discussed in this paper along the lines of a ‘humanist vs posthumanist’ ontology. Patent exclusivity laws have historically marginalized the proprietary owners of indigenous traditional knowledge, creating a moral and ethical rift between those that seek to exploit this knowledge commercially and those from whom the knowledge originally comes from. This disconnection from nature and natural resources due to a humanistic approach2 to growth and development, often leads to environmental exploitation, exploitation of indigenous people and unsustainable commercial practices. Existing research and bioprospecting ethics that are practiced on indigenous lands must be questioned in their ability to provide mutually beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders.

Conclusions: The posthumanist approach to morality and research ethics is discussed in this paper as a possible and practical alternative to humanism along with the potential for posthumanist ethics to be a tool to shape legal frameworks and the policies that protect at-risk communities and their respective natural environments. Our current developmental trajectory as a collective species has us blurring the lines that separate the ‘human’ from the ‘non-human’ elements in our world as humanity grows towards a more technologically advanced but equally environmentally dependent people. Thus, the currently existing systems of ethics that govern the relationship between the ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ must be called into question. This paper aims to illustrate the positive effects of a posthumanist worldview on issues such as environmental sustainability, partnership, moral accountability and reciprocity ethics in the context of modern science and modern scientific research.

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