By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
Forest lore and knowledge passed down over generations by indigenous peoples is open for exploitation by anyone, the United Nations University believes.
Indigenous peoples' knowledge is at risk of exploitation
It says a loophole in international law on intellectual property rights is an affront to traditional groups' culture.
As it stands, the law says indigenous peoples keen to protect their secrets have to put them in the public domain.
The UN researchers say the law amounts to a catch-22 trap, which allows the unscrupulous to exploit the knowledge.
They outline their concerns in a report, The Role Of Registers And Databases In The Protection Of Traditional Knowledge, which is being launched at a meeting in Malaysia of the countries which support the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
The knowledge the report covers includes commercially valuable understanding, developed over centuries of the medicinal and other uses of plants.
The problem arises when regulators from national patent offices have to decide whether a new product which a company wants to patent really is new, or is based on traditional knowledge.
To do this, they require free access to the knowledge itself. But in many indigenous cultures it is highly guarded.
The knowledge is often passed down from one generation to the next through codes of conduct and customary law, frequently including initiation rights before the information is divulged.
The report, from the university's Institute of Advanced Studies, says: "Obliging indigenous people to offer public documentation of traditional knowledge for intellectual property protection purposes is insensitive to centuries-old cultural practice in many places and may lead to injustice."
It cites the example of a legal challenge to a patent over ayahuasca, a rainforest plant used in spiritual and cultural ceremonies.
US patent regulators refused to accept the oral evidence of an Amazon shaman about his people's traditional knowledge of the plant's healing properties.
The report's author, Brendan Tobin, said: "The challenge for the world community is to devise a process to prevent the piracy of traditional knowledge without jeopardizing the cultural integrity and ways of indigenous peoples."
Forests are commercial treasure troves
The UN says the example of the Inuit may be helpful: they maintain a very high level of secrecy, but let government officials have confidential access to their traditional knowledge if they need it.
It says international law should be amended to allow indigenous people to provide oral evidence of traditional knowledge.
Agreement in advance
They should be able to give this confidentially, and access to confidential databases should be restricted.
The report says registers and databases developed and held by indigenous groups, museums, botanical gardens and universities are essential for protecting traditional knowledge.
But they all need a common code of conduct, for example making explicit acceptance of the rights of indigenous peoples over their knowledge a pre-condition of access to the information.
It also says companies should have to demonstrate prior informed consent as a condition for scientific or commercial use of the knowledge.