I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Country and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. I pay my respects to them and their cultures, to the Elders past, present, and emerging. I write this from Boorloo in Noongar Whadjuk Boodjar and I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this Country where I reside, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation.
I want to preface this post by letting you know that I am not an Aboriginal person and I do not speak for Aboriginal people. I am interested in native ingredients and how they are sourced, in particular how Aboriginal communities can benefit from their Traditional Knowledge. I think it’s a topic that isn’t spoken about much in the beauty industry, and I want to bring light to it and start a discussion.
The Australian landscape is filled with tens of thousands of unique and native plant species that were discovered by Aboriginal people, the oldest continuous living culture on Earth. For 60,000+ years Aboriginal people have been building their cultural, scientific and technological knowledge which includes the understanding of the plant world, plant uses, medicinal benefits, agriculture and growing technologies. As perhaps some of you have noticed, there has been growing interest in native plants, for cosmetic use especially. In this post I’d like to focus on one of the most sought after Australian native extracts, the Kakadu Plum, and some of the issues surrounding the way it is sourced, used and marketed.
Kakadu Plum has been used by Aboriginal people for millennia for food and medicine. Terminalia ferdinandiana, also known as gubinge grows in the Northern parts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory’s Arnhem land where it is harvested during the hot and humid wet season. It’s a relatively small fruit, about 2cm wide and it bears the highest recorded level of natural Vitamin C. It has 430mg/g of Vitamin C compared to the orange which has 55mg/g and it also displays high antioxidant properties. With the focus of the beauty industry shifting to natural ingredients, Kakadu Plum’s popularity comes as no surprise.
In Australia, the appropriation of Aboriginal culture is happening on a massive scale in the tourist goods industry. Think mass produced boomerangs, didgeridoos and art sold at tourism markets as genuine First Nations souvenirs. Now think about the revenue generated by the sale of these and not a cent of that going to Aboriginal communities. It’s unjust and unfair.
This issue runs deeper and touches other industries such as the $25million bush foods industry, where only 1% of the dollar value produced by the industry is actually made by Indigenous people. Finger Lime, Quandong, Davidson’s Plum and Kakadu Plum are bush foods but they are also used in skincare therefore cultural appropriation can also occur, perhaps to a lesser-publicised extent, in the beauty industry.
Kakadu Plum has massive marketing potential not only because of its functional properties, but the stories that shape its identity. It cannot be denied that “exotic” ingredients can elevate the luxury and exclusivity of a product and add to its mystique. We only need to look at big brands like African Botanics and Drunk Elephant to see what can be gained by a brand whose image and storytelling is centred around a native ingredient (in their case, Marula Oil). Most Australian and international brands market their products using the Kakadu Plum story and by referencing its history and traditional use by the Aboriginal people. The reason why this is problematic is because sometimes no benefit or compensation is being provided to the owners of these stories and genetic resources.
According to Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 :
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional culture expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.
As part of my research I contacted the Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance (NAAKPA). They are an alliance of Aboriginal-owned enterprises that supply ethically harvested Kakadu Plum fruit and extracts. The alliance ensures a stable, reliable and authentic supply of Kakadu Plum that directly benefits the communities and aims to protect Indigenous Knowledge. This is a huge challenge however, and a highly complex issue as there are no consistent laws that state how Kakadu Plum can be used, sold and marketed.
Unfortunately, there are other ways and means to purchase Kakadu Plum and its extracts and that’s where things become a little murky. As with all plant based ingredients, their quality, potency and authenticity become questionable the further you get from the original source. Some manufacturers are often looking for the cheapest source, and it comes at the expense of the Aboriginal growers.
Biopiracy and Biocolonialism
biopiracy/ˌbʌɪəʊˈpʌɪrəsi/nounthe practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material, especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while failing to pay fair compensation to the community from which it originates.
Anyone can access a website like Alibaba and find a Chinese Kakadu Plum extract which is not authentic Kakadu Plum but rather a mislabelled extract or a product of bio-piracy. U.S. beauty company Mary Kay even tried to patent Kakadu Plum in 2007, their claim thankfully was rejected by IP Australia. To combat this, NAAKPA are working with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to develop a traceability system with Intellectual Property Australia which will enable traceability of Kakadu Plum to a specific location. The aim is to develop this further into a platform that will be able to support certifications which will not only benefit the growers, but give confidence to customers that they are purchasing products containing genuine Kakadu Plum.
Access and Benefit Sharing
Another way that manufacturers and brands can ensure that benefits roll back into communities is by establishing an Access and Benefit Sharing agreement (ABS). Whilst some major conglomerates have already done so, it is by no means common practice and there are huge holes in the regulatory framework. From a legal perspective there are inconsistencies and complexities that allow some manufacturers to get away with exploitation of ingredients and genetic resources that belong to Indigenous people. Often brands will claim that they support Aboriginal communities but these claims can be difficult to substantiate.
What can we do?
From my research, I have concluded that there are resources, guidelines and frameworks (such as the ABS) set up and available for manufacturers, suppliers and brands to tap into in order to help them operate their business a manner that is ethical and supportive of Indigenous people. As customers we can ask questions of brands that use native ingredients in order to decide whether we want to buy from them. Some brands will be more upfront than others and unfortunately it really comes down to consumers to decide what they are willing to give their money to.
I am not an expert on this matter but I wanted to highlight the issues that cloud every Australian native ingredient so that as customers we can be more aware when purchasing products containing them. Often we focus on cultural appropriation relating to ingredient stories or visual communication, but the issue should also be looked at from a genetic resources perspective. This is by no means saying that non-Indigenous brands should avoid native ingredients or that they don’t have a right to use them, in fact the opposite is true. This industry should continue to grow but not at the expense of Aboriginal people and their communities.
I would like to thank Paul Saeki from the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the Secretariat for NAAKPA for his willingness to answer my questions and provide additional information. NAAKPA‘s website is filled with lots of information about Access & Benefit Sharing and protection of Indigenous Knowledge. I highly recommend that you look through their Articles & Papers section. It helped to inform this article.
I would also like to thank Sharon Winsor from Indigiearth for her encouragement to talk about this topic.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to the ongoing discussion about how we can protect the incredible knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal people.
– Sanida Dart-Kelly