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Panama: Empowering Indigenous Women through a Better Protection and Marketing of Handicrafts

November 2005

“I cannot recall the last time that people sang and danced in the middle of a WIPO seminar,” remarked an observer. But then, this was no gray-suited gathering.

Traditional Knowledge, Genetic Resources, Folklore and Gender was the subject that attracted some 100 participants, mainly women from local indigenous and rural communities, to a two-day seminar held in October in Río Hato, Panama. They came to analyze their problems and successes as producers of traditional handicrafts; to learn which intellectual property (IP) tools could help them protect and market their products; and to benefit from the experiences of other indigenous communities in exploiting IP. With cheap imitations undermining sales of traditional handicrafts, the seminar, organized by WIPO in cooperation with the Industrial Property Registry of Panama and with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank, proved to be a timely event.

Experts highlighted a variety of IP tools, among them collective and certification marks and geographical indications. These seem particularly well adapted to the protection and marketing of handicrafts and, at the same time, to the concepts of the collectivity and collective rights that are at the heart of many indigenous societies. Speakers noted that certification marks are being used, with varying degrees of success, to market indigenous art in countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Other subjects covered included the application of copyright and design protection to traditional cultural expressions; patents; and international developments, such as discussions taking place in the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC).

Panama’s sui generis law

Panama is one of a few countries in the world to have enacted a sui generis law to protect traditional cultural expressions and related knowledge1. Indeed, the IGC text on traditional cultural expressions drew upon Panama’s law. Introduced in June 2000, Law 20 is designed to protect traditional dress (see box on molas), music, dance and major indigenous handicrafts such as tagua nut carvings, hand-beaded chaquira necklaces and chacara woven bags. The seminar provided an opportunity to improve understanding of this law within the communities concerned.

New authenticity labels

Panamanian government representatives used the occasion to formally present to representatives of the Kuna peoples rolls of authenticity labels, the first of their kind to be issued under Law 20. The labels are intended to be attached to molas – the distinctive textile panels produced by Kuna craftswomen - so as to guarantee their authenticity.

The widespread sale of cheap mola imitations is adversely affecting the market price and quality reputation of the genuine product. Authentic handmade molas, using traditional techniques and patterns, can take two to four weeks to complete. Copies, cheap in terms of both quality and price, are sewn by non-indigenous women or mass-produced, in Panama and elsewhere. The consequences for the community are serious, as the creation and sale of molas constitute the only source of income for many Kuna women and their families. Ultimately, it is the very cultural heritage of the Kuna people which is threatened. Women from the Ngobe-Bugle and Embera communities described similar problems resulting from the misappropriation of their traditional cultural expressions.

It was noted that, although authenticity labeling cannot in itself prevent the sale of imitations, it can help to differentiate the genuine traditional handicraft and so enable discerning buyers to pay a fair price for a quality product.

The mola

Kuna participants at the seminar.

Kuna craftswomen use a reverse appliqué technique to create molas, traditionally sewn onto their blouses, but often now sold as individual decorative panels. Multiple layers of colored cloth are stitched together, and designs are created by cutting through to expose underlying layers. The Panama government has been working with the Kuna communities since the 1990s to find ways to protect the molas from unauthorized copying.


Placing women at the center

Indigenous women often face double discrimination, based on gender and ethnicity, and find themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, marginalized from policy and decision-making processes and from training programs. Yet in many communities, women are the principal - or sole - producers of traditional crafts as well as custodians of cultural heritage.

For this reason, awareness raising and capacity building programs aimed at preserving, protecting and managing traditional knowledge and arts are likely to fail if they do not place indigenous women at the center, both as actors and as a target group. As one participant at the seminar put it: “I may not be a lawyer or a biologist, but as a woman I know what I’m talking about from my own experience.” Teaching indigenous women to use IP tools to protect and increase the income-generating potential of their products also makes sense if IP is to contribute to wider UN efforts to combat what has been termed the feminization of poverty. Studies show this to be particularly acute in rural and indigenous communities, and to constitute a major obstacle to achieving sustainable development.2

WIPO would like to see the Rio Hato seminar serve as a springboard for future activities, in cooperation with national governments and other partners: activities that address the everyday challenges which confront indigenous communities and, in particular, indigenous women. Such activities can also inform and complement the work of the IGC. The principal aim, however, remains to identify practical, grass roots solutions for harnessing the opportunities offered by the IP system in order to ensure more effective recognition, protection and management of cultural assets.


1. Law No. 20 (June 26, 2000) “on a special intellectual property regime for the collective rights of indigenous communities, for the protection of their cultural identities and traditional knowledge.”
2. See e.g. Progress of the World’s Women 2005, United Nations Development Fund for Women; and Engendering Development, World Bank and the Oxford University Press (2001).

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.