Tag Archives: biopiracy

The Nightmare of Preserving Biodiversity

Fruit of Myristica Fragans

Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.

That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”

Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.

Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines…The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.

Excerpts from Botany and bureaucracy: A dying breed, Economist,  Sept. 12, 2015, at 55

Feudal System: pirates fund political parties in Africa

Gulf of Guinea. image from wikipedia

Just a few years ago the most dangerous waters in the world were off the coast of Somalia. But piracy there has fallen dramatically. It is more than two years since Somali pirates last successfully boarded a ship. At their peak in 2011, attacks were taking place almost daily. The number of attempts has fallen to a handful every month. Now it is the Gulf of Guinea that is the worst piracy hotspot, accounting for 19% of attacks worldwide, as recorded by the International Maritime Bureau. It registers an attack nearly every week  The numbers are probably underestimates. America’s Office of Naval Intelligence reckons the real figure is more than twice as large—and growing.

The nature of piracy is quite different on the two sides of the continent. Around the Horn of Africa in the east, Somali pirates seek to seize ships and crews for ransom, and have ventured deep into the Indian Ocean. In the Gulf of Guinea in the west, attackers are more intent on stealing cash and cargoes of fuel, such as diesel, from ships coming in to port. Crews are sometimes kidnapped.

It is a quicker hit than the Somali hostage-taking. It also tends to be more violent because the attackers have little incentive to keep the crews safe. Armed resistance is often met with heavy machine guns and military tactics, says Haakon Svane, of the Norwegian shipowners’ association. Ships are seized for a few days, anchored quietly and cargoes are siphoned off into smaller vessels. The gangs also appear to have good intelligence, security sources say: they often know which ships to attack and they recruit the skilled crewmen needed to operate the equipment.

Frequently the targets are themselves involved in regional smuggling, so they switch off transponders or assume false identities, making it hard for rudimentary anti-piracy forces to keep track of them. Moreover, they do not report attacks.

Incidents have stretched all the way from the Ivory Coast to Angola, but the root of the problem lies in Nigeria. Most acts of piracy are committed in Nigerian seas, by Nigerian criminals. The trouble at sea is ultimately tied to the country’s dysfunctional oil industry and the violent politics of the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is produced. Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil producer; nevertheless, it suffers from shortages of refined fuels.

Widespread “bunkering” (the term Nigerians use for the theft of oil) and a violent insurgency created the conditions for piracy to flourish. Analysts say there tend to be spikes in both bunkering and maritime criminality before elections, which may mean that politicians are using illicit means to finance themselves. If so, expect pilfering to rise as Nigeria’s presidential vote nears in February. “The ransoms are used for the elections,” says Hans Tino Hansen, managing director of the Risk Intelligence consultancy. He points to a “feudal system” in which politicians protect pirates in return for a cut of their profits. An added problem is that elections may divert the attention of the security agencies…Te worry is that piracy, itself, is becoming enmeshed with drugs- and arms-smuggling networks linked to violent jihadist groups in the Sahel.

Piracy in Africa: The ungoverned seas, Economist, Nov 29, 2014, at 44

The Politics of Fighting Biopiracy: European Union

Pelargonium Sidoides.  Image from wikipedia

The European Union is debating a biopiracy law requiring industry to compensate indigenous people if it makes commercial use of local knowledge such as plant-based medicines.  Under the law – based on the international convention on access to biodiversity, the Nagoya protocol – the pharmaceuticals industry would need the written consent of local or indigenous people before exploring their region’s genetic resources or making use of their traditional know-how. Relevant authorities would have the power to sanction companies which failed to comply, protecting local interests from the predatory attitude of big European companies.

A German pharmaceutical company’s dealings in South Africa [is an example of biopiracy].  Pelargonium sidoides, a variety of geranium known for its antimicrobial and expectorant qualities, has been used traditionally by indigenous communities in South Africa for centuries to treat bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. It also stimulates the nervous system, so has been used in the treatment of AIDS and tuberculosis.  In 2000, the German company Schwabe made significant profits on Umckaloabo, a product derived from the geranium, without compensating local communities. It then filed patents claiming exclusive rights to the medical use of the plant.

But in 2010 the patents were cancelled following appeals from the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa and the Bern Declaration in Switzerland, calling the patents “an illegitimate and illegal monopolization of genetic resources derived from traditional knowledge and a stark opposition to the Convention on Biodiversity.”…[The] law would help protect biodiversity and ensure that the people from the region are adequately compensated for their resource and their traditional know-how. …The need to ensure the property rights of indigenous populations becomes more pressing as industry looks more and more to plant and animal-based cures to common diseases.Only 16 countries have ratified the Nagoya protocol. The European Union and its 24 of its 27 member states have signed the convention, but are yet to ratify it. When they do, Nagoya should soon reach the 50 states needed for it to come into force…  “The 16 states are countries in the South…

Excerpts, EU ponders biopiracy law to protect indigeneous people, EurActiv, April 26,  2013

See also EU portal on Biodiversity and Benefits Sharing

See also article on Alice v. Schwabe

India versus Mosanto: the Bt Eggplant

The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), India’s biodiversity-preservation watchdog, has finally woken up to its job. It has decided to prosecute multinational seed company Monsanto for allegedly using Indian brinjal varieties for commercial purposes without permission.   The decision was taken in a vote at a meeting on February 28, 2012. The majority of the members voted in favour of initiating action against Monsanto for violating India’s biodiversity law. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, too, is in favour of prosecuting the seed giant. The vote was essential as some board members of the NBA were against holding Monsanto to task, sources said. The decision is bound to send a clear cut message that any attempt to fiddle with the country’s biological wealth will not go unpunished.

The Indian law says it is essential for anyone desirous of using India-produced biological goods for commercial purposes to seek permission from the NBA. The authority’s nod is required even if, as in Monsanto’s case, the material has been modified by Indian universities.  The voting will reverse an earlier judgment, taken by the Karnataka state biodiversity board on January 20, 2012, that spared the alleged violators the rod.

The complaint against Monsanto, its Indian subsidiary Mahyco, and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, was filed by the Environment Support Group in February 2010. It had alleged that the accused illegally accessed and genetically modified six varieties of Indian brinjal to produce Bt Brinjal.

BT brinjal row: National Biodiversity Authority decides to prosecute Monsanto, India Today, April 17, 2012

See also Indian Abandons Case Against Mosanto

Biopiracy Claims Against Mosanto

Anti-GM India

Is India Abandoning Legal Action against Biopiracy?

From the Press Release of Environmental Support Group Feb. 7, 2012

In a shocking development, the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board [India] has resolved in its 19th meeting held on 20th January 2012 that it will not prosecute institutions and companies who violate the Biological Diversity Act.This highly controversial and illegal decision was taken in the context of reviewing [Environmental Support Group] ESG’s complaint of biopiracy against Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco who along with their collaborators (University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwar; Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore; Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Lucknow; Sathguru Foundation, Hyderabad; United States Agency for International Development and Cornell University, New York) wilfully violated the provisions of the Biological Diversity Act by illegally accessing 12 varieties of brinjal endemic to India and genetically modifying it, resulting in a patented product – B.t. Brinjal. This constitutes biopiracy, a criminal violation punishable with prison sentences.

The resolution passed by the Board is as follows: “The subject was deliberated and it was clarified that the subject comes under the purview of the National Biodiversity Authority. Therefore, it was resolved that it is for the National Biodiversity Authority to take necessary action at their end against institutions/companies regarding alleged violations of provisions under Biodiversity Act 2002.”

There is little doubt that this controversial resolution was passed to unhook Monsanto and its collaborators from biopiracy charges. It is tenable to draw such a conclusion as the current action agitates against the consistent position held by the Board that ESG’s complaint of biopiracy has merit and action must be initiated against the violators per the advise of the National Biodiversity Authority….This retrograde decision flies in the face of an assurance given to Parliament by Smt. Jayanti Natarajan, Indian Minister of State for Environment and Forests, as recently as on 28 September 2011. The Minister had stated that “(b)ased on preliminary information placed before it, the National Biodiversity Authority has recommended in principle to initiate legal action against alleged violators for violation of various provisions of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002”. …

This is more than likely to encourage more cases of biopiracy by corporates and thus seriously compromise biodiversity heritage and the food and social security that it extends to millions. Further, it will allow the loot of our natural wealth for maximising corporate profits by agricultural, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, while irreversibly jeopardising the economic and ecological security of present and future generations.

Excerpts from PRESS RELEASE, Karnataka abandons obligation to prosecute violators of Biological Diversity Act, Environmental Support Group, Feb. 7, 2012

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

Biopiracy Claims against Mosanto,Bio-engineered Food

The (Indian) National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) is learnt to have decided to proceed legally against Mahyco and Monsanto over “alleged violation” in using local brinjal varieties for development of (GM) brinjal (eggplant) without permission from the authorities concerned….The decision has been taken based on a complaint to the NBA that alleged that the private company used the local variety from Karnataka for developing the Bt brinjal, which was approved for commercial cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), but was put under indefinite ban by the Environment Minister last year.

Bt brinjal: NBA to act against Mahyco, Monsanto, IndianExpress.com, Aug. 13, 2011

Who Owns Your DNA? the boundaries between bioprospecting and biopiracy

The Q’eros People of Peru claim that they were not consulted by the United States-based Genographic Project and they have not provided informed consent for their blood samples to be collected….Here is their an excerpt for their position

“The Genographic Project is a large scale genetic study that seeks to collect DNA samples of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, particularly indigenous people. By sequencing and comparing the DNA samples, the Project purports to be able to map human migration over history, one of many purposes to which the DNA samples may be put to use.

The computing giant IMB is the principle corporate sponsor of the Project. Key Project scientists are employed by the US National Geographic Society. Members of the Project’s “Genographic Consortium” also include researchers at 14 other universities, institutes and a DNA sequencing company. The Project planned to end DNA collections in 2010, but it still collecting indigenous peoples’ DNA for reasons that have yet to be publicly explained.

The Genographic Project was constructed and is steered by architects of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and their protégés. It is an uncomfortable heritage. In the 1990s, the HGDP’s plan to collect blood from indigenous people proved so controversial that it earned the popular name ‘The Vampire Project.’

In 1997, the HGDP was effectively terminated when its efforts to obtain US government funding were rejected due to ethical shortcomings.4 The Genographic Project claims to have solved some of the HGDP’s problems; but its own transparency is lacking. Because it is privately funded, there are few requirements for public disclosure of its activities, and oversight by government and civil society organizations is highly curtailed.

…..

In early April, Asociación ANDES received word that seven researchers from the Genographic Project will arrive in Peru in the first week of May to collect human DNA samples from the Q’eros people. This information is not widely known in the Cusco Region because the US-based Genographic Project did not approach local or regional authorities about their plan, rather, the Project hired a local tour guide and sent a cursory one page notification of their upcoming visit to people in a Q’ero town.

The Q’eros are an isolated indigenous group who live in a rural province of the Cusco Region. They are renowned for their shamanic knowledge and self-proclaimed identity as ‘The Last Incas.’… The Q’eros were not consulted beforehand about the DNA collection which, they have been informed, will take place following a presentation on May 7th (2011).”

For more Genographic Project Hunts the Last Incas

See also Ethical Framework of the Genographic Project

Community of Q’eros