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How ‘Geographical Indications’ safeguard Phl culture and preserve Filipino indigenous traditions

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On July 3, 1888, Dr. Jose Rizal wrote a letter to his friend Dr. Adolf Bastian, the founder of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, concerning his donation. Now displayed in the Berlin Museum, the donation is a collection of 22 items made from the Philippines, 16 of which were articles of clothing and fine textiles, such as piña, jusi and abaca, with some marked with ikat patterns. All survived the Second World War to testify to the craftsmanship that remains very much alive today in numerous indigenous communities in the country. 

Senator Loren B. Legarda, current chairperson of the Senate Committee on Culture and the Arts, was reflecting on the Philippine national hero as a culture bearer at the 2nd National Geographical Indications (GI) Forum held in May 2023 by the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines (IPOPHL). Like Rizal, Legarda is a fond collector of traditional clothing. When asked for a ballpark on the Philippine-made pieces in her wardrobe, the senator, who was donning a 100-year old wild cotton top from Atique, took a minute to estimate before revealing she has “decades” worth of pieces that tell the different stories of local cultures. 

Beyond her impeccable fashion choices, the senator is a vigorous advocate for preserving indigenous art and traditions. One matter that distresses the lawmaker in protecting culture is the misappropriation of the country’s cultural products. 

“In this globalized world, in this world where everything is available with a click of a computer, it’s so easy to misappropriate our culture. [Many can] design a brand, an idea and call it theirs,” Legarda said.

“I think [GI] is something whose time has come or actually whose time was needed a long long time ago,” Legarda said,  lauding efforts to establish the new GI regime in the Philippines, enabled primarily by IPOPHL’s issuance last year of the rules and regulations set in Memorandum Circular 22.

GI for fighting cultural misappropriation

GI often protects products that derive from the traditional processes and knowledge that a community from a certain region passes on from generation to generation. While GIs do not directly protect the subject matter generally associated with genetic resources, traditional knowledge (GRTK) and folklore, GIs could preserve those that result in tangible goods or works of expressions. This, as GI registration requires a manual of standard operating procedures that detail preparations to post-production processes. Association members then adhere to these standards to maintain their privilege of using the GI seal, in the process ensuring that the exact tradition is passed on for future generations.

“Indeed, the role of GIs are valuable in this day and age where counterfeit products and goods are rampant [and] our traditions are not followed. A GI can help our producers in a locality lessen these incidences of piracy and cultural misappropriation,” Congressman Christopher V.P. De Venecia, a known champion of the local creative industries, said at the GI Forum. 

He recalled an inquiry they collaborated on in 2020 when counterfeit Cordillera-woven blankets and garments had flooded local markets, from Benguet to Bontoc and Kalinga to Apayao. 

The counterfeit products were being sold much lower than the authentic pieces, endangering the local woven fabric industry and misleading consumers into thinking they were made by natives. Such contrabands do more harm to indigenous communities than just economic injustice —  they violate the sanctity of their traditions, religious beliefs and way of life, told between the intertwining of the weaves and the interlacing of their patterns. 

At the height of the inquiry, GI emerged as a potential solution, according to De Venecia, the representative of Pangasinan’s 4th District, who was donning a bangus-themed barong made by experimental fashion designer Kelvin Morales.  

It was the same barong he wore to President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s first State of the Nation Address in 2022. To De Venecia, it was “very important” that he also wore the piece at the GI Forum to celebrate the iconic status of Pangasinan’s Bonuan Bangus, which is one of more than 30 products IPOPHL initially identified as potential GIs. 

“This will greatly help our fisherfolk. Our local gastronomists, gastronomes and our MSMEs,” de Venecia said, describing GI as a driver for job creation, economic growth and value expansion. “GI assures everyone that nobody can unduly benefit from the high quality hard work of genuine producers of a variety of… products,” he added. 

Legislative reforms to protect culture

Bureau of Trademarks Director Jesus Antonio Z. Ros stressed the need to transition to a stronger GI regime through a sui generis law or a law of its own to provide protection of communities’ IP rights without expiration – a protection term the conventional IP regime does not grant. 

“In our proposed legislation, we make violation of GI a crime against the economic and cultural interests of the State, which means it can be enforced by the latter without private stakeholders initiating the process,” Ros said at the forum, pleased that partners in the legislative, such as Legarda and De Venecia, were supportive of GI. 

Another legislative initiative that seeks to protect indigenous traditions is Senate Bill 839, also authored by Legarda. The bill seeks to protect traditional heritage, both tangible and intangible, “in perpetuity in ethnic memory” and consider it “valid as ethnic IP.” 

The GI regime also complements ongoing thrusts of the government to uncover more cultural treasures in the regions.

In May 2023, the Senate adopted and ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the Cultural Mapping Bill, which will amend Republic Act 10066 or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009. Both Senate and House versions mandate the local government units – with the technical assistance of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and other cultural offices and organizations in the country –  to scour their areas to identify both tangible and intangible products that mold their cultural identities and heritage. 

In this aspect, a sui generis Gi regime can help enhance the economic value of these products and allow sharing them to the world while ensuring adequate protection over these products.

Director General Rowel S. Barba hopes for such legislative reforms to gain further traction once the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) takes effect on 06 June 2023. RCEP, the world’s largest free trade agreement (FTA), encompassing 15 countries that account for 31% of global GDP, dedicates a section on GRTK and folklore. 

“Under Article 11.53 of the agreement, members are entitled to establish measures they deem appropriate to protect GRTK and folklore. This is an offensive for the Philippines whose prosperity derives from the wealth of our culture and natural resources,” Barba said.

“But like GI registration, the legislation of all these much-needed reforms will be just the beginning. Moving forward, IPOPHL will have to work more closely with the communities, relevant agencies and partners as IPOPHL’s core goal is to create concrete development for Philippine creativity and culture through the GI system,” Barba added.

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