Daily Archives: November 11, 2011

The Race for Genetic Resources, Bioprospecting vs. Biopiracy

On an international level, Indonesia signed the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing earlier this year.  The Nagoya Protocol is an international treaty under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that agrees on fair and equitable sharing from the utilization of genetic resources found in certain countriesThe protocol stipulates that those who produce genetic resources must provide benefit sharing with the country of origin of that particular genetic resource.  Benefit sharing may take the shape of funding, technology transfers or capacity building, depending on what is agreed bilaterally between the user and provider.  With more than 60 signatories, the Nagoya Protocol has now entered into force.

Of course, most signatories come from developing and resource-rich countries, and countries from the European Union, but the protocol is still missing major genetic resource users, such as the United States and Australia, from its signatory list.

The Nagoya Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD),a convention signed during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  In December 1993, the CBD entered into force without the participation of the US. 

For Indonesia, signing the Nagoya Protocol provides a blessing if we can list down, catalog, and patent all of our native endemic species throughout the archipelago.  But if we fail to do this ahead of other countries, we will end up going downhill, paying royalties for what really originates from our own soil and seas.  Coffee, sugarcane, and palm oil are among some of the products that we might have to pay higher prices for in the future because the genetic resources of these products are claimed to originate from Brazil or South Africa and were only brought to Indonesia by the Dutch.  This presents a threat to our people, our national businesses and the country as a whole, but many people are still unaware of it.

As the world’s second megabiodiversity country, it is time that Indonesia resets its priorities to put the best interests of its natural resources first.  A three-pronged strategy is needed to achieve this, covering local, national and international dimensions.

First, on a national level the government needs to realize the urgency of bioprospecting and allocate a sufficient budget for this purpose.  Bioprospecting means identifying valuable components and genetic resources in fields such as horticulture, medicine, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food and beverages.  But not only that, bioprospecting also involves creating a legal framework for compensation when materials and indigenous knowledge are shared with external parties.  Bioprospecting is needed to prevent actions of biopiracy or incidents where Indonesian genetic materials are “stolen” and stored in foreign banks for commercial purposes.  Biopiracy on Indonesian genetic materials has been a source of many biotechnology patents on a global level without ample economic returns to our country.

Second, this country must safeguard its genetic wealth by integrating a local approach within its national strategy. We need to actively involve local communities in the bioprospecting process. They are essentially the owners of these genetic resources and traditional knowledge. It is the local wisdom that is passed on for many generations that we need preserve and attribute the highest value to, and ensure that they receive equitable benefits, too.

The Environment Ministry has set up biodiversity centers in several provinces to identify and list down our endemic genetic resources. Coordinated bioprospecting efforts are also undertaken together with the Forestry Ministry, Agriculture Ministry and the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI).  But without the help of local tribes and communities, it will be near impossible to document all of the genetic resources and indigenous knowledge throughout this vast archipelago.

One successful effort in a developing country to prevent biopiracy is India’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a database documenting traditional medicinal treatment that integrates diverse disciplines (Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha), various traditional languages (Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, and Tamil), as well as modern science and modern medicine.  The ancient texts of 34 million pages in the TKDL are made available in English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish.

Excerpts from Kinanti Kusumawardani. Bioprospecting: biodiversity at a crossroads, Jakarta Post, Nov. 10, 2011