For indigenous peoples round the world, traditional knowledge based on natural resources such as medicinal herbs forms the core of culture and identity. But this wealth of knowledge is under pressure. Indigenous communities are increasingly vulnerable to eviction, environmental degradation and outside interests eager to monopolise control over their traditional resources. Intellectual property rights such as patents, however, sit uneasily with traditional knowledge. Their commercial focus wars with fundamental indigenous principles such as resource access and sharing. Local customary law offers a better fit, and findings in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru show how this pairing can work in practice. The research has identified common elements, and key differences, in customary law that should be informing policy on traditional knowledge and genetic resources.