Tag Archives: genetic resources

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 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

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

Genetic Resources, Gene Banks and the World’s Food

Representatives from more than 60 countries gathered in Rome on December 8 2010 for a United Nations-backed meeting to promote the international treaty considered essential for the conservation and use of the world’s threatened plant genetic resources.  The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources was adopted by the Conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2001 to facilitate international cooperation and the fair exchange of genetic resources.  The treaty’s Benefit-sharing Fund (BSF) was created to support poor farmers in developing countries to conserve and adapt to climate change the most important food crops.

Opening the meeting, Giancarlo Galan, Italy’s Agriculture Minister, urged other governments to use the treaty “to overcome the ancient and harmful clash between peasant agriculture and modernity.”  He said that since the agreement took effect in 2004, there have been more than 800 daily transfers of seeds and other plant material from a pool of more than 1.3 million samples.  “This high-level forum has made more evident that the Treaty is able to address simultaneously several challenges, including biodiversity loss, global food crises, climate change adaptation and poverty alleviation, and agricultural development,” said Shakeel Bhatti, the Secretary of the Treaty.

The Benefit-sharing Fund has been accepted as a key international instrument for adaptation to climate change by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), while the treaty has been recognized one of the four pillars of the new international regime on access and benefit-sharing for genetic resources.  The Fund is so far supporting 11 high-impact projects for small-scale farmers in four regions of the world. In Peru, six indigenous communities have responded to climate change by re-introducing old native varieties of potatoes, and adapting them to higher altitude mountain terrains.  In the next three months, $10 million will be devoted to helping ensure sustainable food security by assisting farmers to adapt to climate change. Delegates at the meeting stressed the need to work towards raising $116 million for the fund by 2014.

FAO estimates that 75 per cent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. A recent study predicted that as much as 22 per cent of the wild relatives of important food crops such as peanut, potato and beans could disappear by 2055 because of a changing climate.  Awareness of the problem has, however, been growing rapidly. There are now some 1,750 gene banks worldwide, which together hold more than seven million samples.

UN News Center, Dec. 8, 2010