Digitizing Indigenous Culture: the Maasai of Laikipya

This collection of press releases, articles, and presentation slides tells the ongoing story of the Maasai of Laikipya and their use of technology to preserve and sustain their cultural heritage starting in 2006 to now.

Pilot Project with the Maasai Community

WIPO Press Release
Geneva, May 20, 2008
PR/2008/553

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will launch in September 2008 a pilot program to assist indigenous communities to document their own cultural traditions, archive this heritage for future generations, and safeguard their interest in authorizing use of their recordings and traditions by third parties.

New technologies provide communities with fresh opportunities to document and digitize expressions of their traditional cultures, meeting the strong desire of communities to preserve, promote and pass on their cultural heritage to succeeding generations. Yet, these new forms of documentation and digitization can leave this cultural heritage vulnerable to unwanted exploitation beyond the traditional circle. This pilot program recognizes both the utility of technology for indigenous communities and the paramount need to empower communities to make informed decisions about how to manage intellectual property issues in a way that corresponds with community values and development goals.

The pilot program will begin in September, 2008, when two members of a Maasai community from Laikipia, Kenya and an expert from the National Museums of Kenya will travel to the American Folklife Center (AFC) and then to the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in the United States of America for intensive, hands-on training in documentary techniques and archival skills necessary for effective community-based cultural conservation. WIPO staff will provide intellectual property training. WIPO will also provide the Maasai with a basic kit of field equipment, computers and software for their own use when they return to Kenya.

The pilot program is a collaboration among WIPO and the AFC at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the CDS at Duke University in North Carolina.

Mr. Francis Gurry, Deputy Director General of WIPO, who is responsible for WIPO’s work on these issues said “This innovative capacity-building partnership with the Maasai community of Laikipia addresses a pressing yet legally and practically complex question – how can indigenous and local communities record and promote their traditional cultural expressions without ceding authority over how the recordings are used by third parties?” Mr. Gurry added “Our goal is to empower tradition-bearers to preserve and pass on their own traditional cultures if they wish to do so while safeguarding their intellectual property rights and interests. Testing these ideas through this community-led pilot program is a big step toward that goal.” He noted that the results of the pilot will be shared with other indigenous communities and depending on the feedback, WIPO could envisage offering similar programs to other communities and institutions from other countries.

The training program will enable the Maasai to acquire the requisite technical skills as well as provide the necessary equipment to document and digitize their cultural heritage on an on-going basis. The National Museums of Kenya will be available to provide ongoing institutional support. The Maasai community and the National Museums of Kenya will participate directly as partners in evaluating this pilot initiative and together will make recommendations for its improvement and further development.

This pilot program stems from a request received by WIPO directly from the Maasai community. At its invitation, WIPO made an exploratory visit to the community in late 2006, together with the International Labor Office in Geneva (ILO). This visit was also facilitated by the Kenyan Government’s Task Force appointed to develop laws and policies for the protection of traditional knowledge, genetic resources and folklore. In consultation with the community, WIPO contacted Dr. Peggy Bulger, Director of the AFC, and, based on the Center’s successful history of producing Folklife Field Schools for Cultural Documentation, invited the AFC to develop this pilot training program. AFC in turn contacted CDS, led by Dr. Tom Rankin. AFC and CDS developed the curriculum for the training program together. The curriculum will include such topics as project planning, research ethics, digital archival methods, documentation techniques and database and website development and management. The US Copyright Office will also lend its support to the intellectual property component of the program being offered by WIPO.

This pilot project forms part of WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project, which is developing an integrated set of practical resources and guidelines for cultural institutions such as museums and indigenous communities on managing intellectual property options when digitizing intangible cultural heritage.

Below is an article from the WIPO Magazine in 2008:

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UN Radio Interview with Wend Wendland of the WPIO

In March of 2009, UN Radio’s Patrick Maigua spoke to Wend Wendland, acting director of the Traditional Knowledge Division of WIPO about the project:

[transcript]

“Indigenous Community goes Digital with High-Tech Support from WIPO”

WIPO Press Release
Geneva, August 5, 2009
PR/2009/599

In a community ceremony, under the shade of an acacia tree, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) formally handed over digital recording equipment to Chief Kisio and other elders of the Maasai community, at Il Ngwesi, Laikipia, Kenya to assist the Maasai people in preserving and documenting their rich cultural heritage. Some 200 members of the community participated in the ceremony in late July.

This marked a milestone in a pilot program initiated by WIPO to help indigenous communities document and preserve their own cultural traditions while simultaneously managing their intellectual property interests.

New technologies provide these communities with fresh opportunities to document and digitize expressions of their traditional cultures. Yet, these new forms of documentation and digitization can leave this cultural heritage vulnerable to unwanted exploitation beyond the traditional circle. By empowering the community to record its own traditions and creative expressions, the program allows the community to create its own intellectual property in the form of photographs, sound recordings and databases.

The IP training component of the program enables the community to make informed decisions about how to manage intellectual property assets in a way that corresponds with its values and development goals.

The program also stimulates creativity within the community, can promote local economic and cultural development and helps to bridge the “digital divide”, key objectives of both the Millennium Development Goals and WIPO’s Development Agenda.

The training program enables the Maasai to acquire the requisite technical skills and provides the necessary equipment to document and digitize their cultural heritage on an on-going basis. The equipment provided to the community by WIPO includes a digital camera and sound recording equipment, as well as a state of the art laptop. WIPO will continue to provide ongoing IP advice and support to the community.

The training program is offered by WIPO, in partnership with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in the United States of America. The National Museums of Kenya also participated in the program offered to the Kenyan Maasai community.

This pilot is part of WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project, which is developing an integrated set of practical resources and guidelines for cultural institutions such as museums and indigenous communities on managing intellectual property options when digitizing intangible cultural heritage.

“Kenya Maasai: the Race to Preserve the Past”

From a 2010 United Nations In Action report [transcript]:

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You may also wish to read Tom Rankin’s blog post here with wonderful photos of the project’s Phase II training.

“From subject to producer: reframing the indigenous heritage through cultural documentation training”

Below is an article by Guha Shankar (Folklife Specialist, American Folklife Center, Library of
Congress) from the International Journal of Intangible Heritage (Vol.05 2010), summarizing the project’s progress:

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“Effects of WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project on the Welfare of the Maasai Community”

In October of 2011, the WIPO held an Evaluation Seminar titled “Learning from Existing Evaluation Practices on the Impacts and Effects of Intellectual Property on Development” during which Mr. Eliamani Laltaika (Tanzania Intellectual Property Rights Network, United Republic of Tanzania) presentation a talk on the “Effects of WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project on the Welfare of the Maasai Community”.

Mr. Laltaika’s paper “attempts to evaluate social, economic and cultural impact of this programme on the Maasai and other local and indigenous communities in the light of intangible assets produced, available IPR instruments such as copyright and on going WIPO’s attempt to develop [sui generis] legal instrument(s) for protecting indigenous cultural heritage through the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Folklore (IGC) The paper highlights, among other things, success in community sensitization, projects emanating thereon, policy makers awareness of IPR and indigenous heritage nexus and shortfalls of the current intellectual property system in protecting indigenous cultural heritage” [source].

Below is Mr. Laltaika’s PowerPoint presentation… To see the document full-screen or print it, use the far right icon or click here.

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For more information about the WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project, please visit their website.