Stacey Langwick to study law, plant biology
Many Africans who seek the help of traditional healers appear to be satisfied with their treatment, says Cornell anthropologist Stacey Langwick, who has worked with dozens of healers — practitioners of traditional herbal medicine — over the past 13 years of ethnographic field work in East Africa.
New relationships among governments, academics and industry to commercialize African traditional medicine tend to exclude healers, said Langwick, an assistant professor of anthropology. Development initiatives and scientific studies often cast healers as custodians of communal knowledge but not as innovators of new knowledge. Langwick’s past work with healers has led her to her current study of who benefits from Africans’ knowledge of therapeutic plant, animal and mineral substances.
Langwick’s work has brought her into contact with scientists interested in traditional medicine. She said there is a revival in thinking about traditional medicine in East Africa, “either as the basis of an indigenous pharmaceutical industry or as a way to develop herbals and enter into a booming global herbals market. Traditional medicine could serve as a resource for development.”
Langwick’s new research asks how scientific investigations and research publications contribute to establishing public-private divisions that, she said, are critical to intellectual property rights and the commercialization of scientific knowledge.
“Academics can do research on plants, publish their work, build their careers and contribute to these databases. Insofar as their work enters the public domain, it is open to innovation and privatization [by others]. It can become the basis of research and development for a nutraceutical or a pharmaceutical. Too often, there’s no recourse for the informants, i.e., the healers,” Langwick said. “Casting traditional knowledge of plants’ therapeutic value as public domain exposes it to scientific and commercial appropriation.”
With funding from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, Langwick will study international intellectual property law and plant biology with an eye toward developing legal protection for traditional African knowledge.
The Mellon fellowship “is a rare opportunity to gain the background for really rigorous interdisciplinary study,” said Langwick, who will be supported by the grant for one academic year and two summers at Cornell to study these issues. The grant includes trips to Weill Cornell Medical College to work with researchers of complementary and alternative medicine and to the National Institutes of Health to learn about their databases.
“To do my work well, I need to become more fluent in the languages of science and law,” Langwick said.
Langwick suggests that one solution to these problems may be in the development of a legal notion of collective or communal knowledge that could oppose privatization of knowledge through patents. This would be akin to the digital commons in use by Wikipedia, and would gather together and credit information.
“Common knowledge would not technically be public knowledge or private knowledge; it would be commonly held knowledge,” Langwick said. “It could not be privatized; rather, open access would be legally protected.” More legal work must be done on protecting biological materials such as therapeutic plants from privatization, she said.
Following her Mellon studies, Langwick will negotiate sometimes-competing state and scientific interests at play in international development. “This is an incredible trio — anthropology, science, law — for one scholar. The Mellon Foundation … is quite visionary” in its commitment to interdisciplinary study.
In addition to an ethnographic book, she intends to write articles in venues that will reach African officials, legal scholars and scientists.
“My work is completely motivated by earlier ethnographic projects and by what’s important to Africans with whom I work with,” Langwick said. “At this point in my career, this is a really exciting and intriguing opportunity for me.”