Indigenous Knowledge, Intellectual property & business.

Recently, there has been a revived interest in indigenous ways of thinking. Even from a business perspective, it is being recognised that indigenous frameworks can allow a more sustainable way of living and working.  But to really understand indigenous knowledge, one must start with the indigenous worldview.  

For Maori, this worldview begins with the spiritual nexus between humankind and the environment. Māori intrinsically believe that we are of the earth and through Tāne’s union with the earth maiden Hineahuone, our ancestors came into existence. Like all mythology this is a metaphor that we are of the earth and are a symptom of nature, and come ultimately from Papatūānuku (earth mother), nature itself. 


For Maori, this worldview and these beliefs manifest themselves in the daily practices and customs of our ancestors.  This system is known as tikanga (the right way). Tikanga is the framework through which the Māori worldview operates.  
To explore tikanga, indigenous worldviews and the interrelationship with western society, we speak with Kiri on her views regarding intellectual property, business and tikanga Maori.  

Kiri is currently completing her Doctorate (PHD) in Law at Oxford University and her thesis pertains to the Commercialisation of Indigenous Intellectual Property. Kiri also completed her Masters (LLM) in the same field. Kiri is of Ngā Puhi descent, is a lawyer for Ngāti Wai and hails from Aotea, Great Barrier Island. 
1.  What is Intellectual Property ? How is it related to Māori customary law/Tikanga?

Intellectual property is a system of western legal rules that protects creations of the human mind.  As most people know, under IP law, the author or creator of things like a song, design, invention or brand can be granted exclusive property rights over their creations, usually for a finite period of time.  

Unfortunately, the IP regime does not always provide full protection for indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and cultural expressions.  This means that Maori traditional knowledge like rongoa Maori (Maori medicine) and traditional expressions like the haka and whakairo (carving) have been (and can continue to be) misused and misappropriated. 

Countries are working on ways to better protect traditional knowledge and cultural expressions through the IP legal system.  However, the gap between IP law and the protection indigenous peoples seek by in large remains.  


2. What do you think are the big challenges for our business from an IP perspective? When you worked at the World Intellectual Property Organization, what did you see that relates to how we function and operate as a business?

From my time at WIPO, Aotea is a great example of indigenous people reclaiming their traditional knowledge and strategically using the capitalist and legal system to breathe life into Maori knowledge system(s) and share that wisdom with others in a sustainable, respectful, and responsible way. 


3. People are interested in how a business can be a vehicle for self-determination. In many ways, politics has failed Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. Does the interweaving of IP rights, Māori customary law and business proprietary ownership and interests address Māori sovereignty where politics has failed to do so?


Working strategically, business and social entrepreneurship can promote and give effect to the values that are intrinsic to Maori self-determination, such as kaitiakitanga, whanaungatanga, and manaakitanga.  Rather than considering political compromise and/or waiting for self-determination to be recognised, business and social entrepreneurship provides a space whereby Maori can (re)claim power and create a product or brand that speaks to their values.  In doing so, Maori who use business in this way also educate and empower consumers who also wish to support a product/brand that speaks to their values (such as sustainability, locally sourced and made goods, supporting communities, and consuming healthy, preservative free products).  Aotea is an example of a group of young people who are using the rubric of business and social entrepreneurship in this way to give effect to tikanga Maori and to also empower those consumers who wish to support brands that speak to their values too. 


4. Tikanga has often been viewed as a fluid and dynamic framework that can change to accommodate changing circumstances. But how important is it to retain certain kawa and rules. And if Tikanga does allow for change, who (individual or a body of ppl) can approve of this accommodation? How important is it to retain the old maori world view, te ao kōhatu.


Tikanga is known as the right way of doing things.  It comprises the rules and processes of our ancestors.  It is through tikanga that our ancestors speak to us, and guide us, on how to live sustainably and responsibly with others and our natural environment.  

Crucially, however, tikanga – as does the world – changes and evolves.  A key element of tikanga is the recognition that we live in Te Ao Hurihuri (the ever changing world) and that without change there is no growth or life.  Tikanga itself therefore is an evolving set of guidelines that must change and evolve as we and our environment change and evolve.  It is the people who decide when and how this change will take place.  Change and evolution is never lineal and it can sometimes be violent.  However, this process of change itself (however violent) is important, as it ensures that any new or proposed change to tikanga is truly needed.  There are good reasons to retain traditional approaches to modern challenges.  Indeed, concepts such as kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga remain as paramount as ever today.  However, as with invention, necessity it seems can also be the mother of change and the evolution of tikanga. 


5. Do you see an appropriation of a māori world-view from the west? Is this another (to frame it an pākeha way) set of IP or intangible values that are being taken and for the west to benefit from by way of absorbing it into a commercial angle? Perhaps a consideration is for maori to adopt a capitalist construct into a maori world view instead. And if this is an appropriate form of action, what entities are best to utilize this framework?


The west has certainly appropriated Maori values through capitalist enterprises.  However, this does not mean that Maori should adopt a capitalist construct into a Maori worldview to reclaim what has been lost.  Maori have a proven worldview that supports the wellbeing of people and the environment that is independent to capitalism and the values that underpin that system.  There are certainly lessons that Maori can take from capitalism into te Ao Maori, however rather than adopt capitalism into te Ao Maori, Maori should continue to promote their worldview and champion attributes of the capitalist model that are consistent with te Ao Maori, such as creativity, entrepreneurship and efficiency.  This is what Aotea does and achieves so well – championing sustainability, communities and personal health and wellbeing.  


6. We are also interested in this evolution of this brand. Aotea seems to have grown somehow organically into a highly sophisticated, sustainable brand, with a great amount of effective power. Is it a continuing evolving that we are imagining for the future of this brand?

Aotea is a unique brand.  It has very successfully filled a gap in the New Zealand market/business space, this gap being the ability to provide top quality products while at the same time empowering and educating consumers on aspects of tikanga Maori and sustainability.  Aotea should continue to fill this gap, as there is a demand and need to empower and educate consumers who wish to support businesses that align with their values. 

Moving forward, Aotea should look to engage with other systems and cultures throughout the world, to learn from these cultures which have profound lessons and worldviews, and then to share with those cultures and systems the unique attributes of tikanga Maori.  He iwi kotahi tatou – ultimately, we are one people and Aotea, through its platform, can share with the world the unique insights and lessons that have been tried and tested by our ancestors in New Zealand.