Tag Archives: bioprospecting

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

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