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Pat Torres uses traditional methods to prepare and harvest bush food.(Supplied: Facebook)

A new biodiscovery bill aimed at helping Indigenous people claim the rights to their own products has prompted questions in the Kimberley around who would truly benefit.

The proposed legislative change would regulate the use of genetic material sourced from native plants and animals, and give power to traditional owner groups to grant access to them.

Consultation for Western Australia’s new Biodiscovery bill began in Broome last week.

The question of First Nations' copyright and ownership last came to a head in 2015 in the Kimberley when a major US cosmetic company put a patent on the compounds found in the native fruit Gubinge.

Gubinge has traditional uses for First Nations people. (Supplied: Pat Torres)

But Gubinge, also known as Kakadu plum, is endemic to the Kimberley region and is used frequently by First Nations people to make bush medicine and other products.

WA is home to eight out of 15 biodiversity hotspots in the country and makes up 10 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.

Jabirr Jabirr, Nyul Nyul and Yawuru woman Pat Torres owns her own bush food and medicine business, and travelled to the consultation meetings to voice her concerns about the bill.

She said while she was cautiously optimistic about the proposal, the bill needed to centre on Indigenous voices.

"We have a history in Australia, of people just taking knowledge and not giving us any benefit for the use of that knowledge,"

Working off the Nagoya Protocol

The bill stems from the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement on access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits, which attempts to hand back power to Indigenous people when it comes to sharing natural resources.

Ms Torres said while the bill could be a positive step forward for protecting cultural knowledge and product, there were still concerns.

"The challenge will be whether we're just the suppliers of information, and then someone else with more resources, more money, more social and political impact [will be] the ones who benefit," she said.

Ms Torres harvesting native plants for bush food and medicine.(Supplied: Pat Torres)

Ms Torres said in particular the bill needed to make sure Aboriginal people were not "given the small change left in the ashtray", but rather the bargaining power over their own knowledge and native products.

A recent University of Sydney market study found Australia's rapidly growing native foods and botanicals industry was worth $81.5 million in the 2019–20 financial year, with the potential to double by 2025.

WA’s Minister for Science Roger Cook took part in community meetings in Broome last month and said negotiating the bill would need to be a "careful" process.

"We need to actually form a balance between making sure that we can regulate the exploitation of that knowledge, but also making sure that people can benefit from it," he said.

"We know that traditional owners have a vast level of knowledge about the biodiversity in their regions, and we know that science can unlock even more value in terms of that."

Mr Cook also acknowledged unless there was careful regulation there could be conflicts around commercialising traditional knowledge, particularly in the Kimberley with many competing traditional owner groups.

"Naturally, we are moving through this carefully," he said.

Posted Mon 7 Nov 2022 at 6:47amMonday 7 Nov 2022 at 6:47am, updated Mon 7 Nov 2022 at 6:55am


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