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BIOPIRACY: WHAT IS IT?

Megan Murison, Communications Officer, Endangered Wildlife Trust, meganm@ewt.org.za

Patent laws were designed to protect intellectual property and ensure that the rights of those involved in the development of the product or service be safeguarded. However, some use these laws to infringe upon the rights of others. Biopiracy occurs when individuals or companies take indigenous knowledge of species provided by others and patent this information without official sanction or permission. These biopirates do not acknowledge those who have taken the time to understand and nurture plants over generations (farmers, communities, traditional healers, etc.), neither do they compensate them for their contribution of knowledge and experience.

An interesting case study for biopiracy is the use of stevia. Any consumer in this day and age will have heard of the use of stevia as a sugar replacement in cooldrinks and food items. Public Eye, a global justice initiative, classifies the use of the Steviol glycosides as a classic case of biopiracy. This plant was historically used as a natural sweetener by the Guarani peoples of Brazil and Paraguay. Unfortunately, with no legislative backing, the use of stevia glycosides is uncontrolled, and many large organisations are applying for the patent. Even more concerning is that 80% of commercially used stevia is produced in China. While it is indigenous to Brazil and Paraguay, they only make up 3% of the commercial use.

Moreover, the impact on the genetic biology of the plant is also worrying. As large companies quickly race to produce synthetic stevia material, small scale farmers are at risk of losing their livelihoods. And in the end, the large companies will receive the monetary benefits.

International agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, do not appear to stop large companies from conducting acts of biopiracy under the guise of bioprospecting. The legislation regulating its implementation, the Nagoya Protocol, is often improperly applied by countries, and others, including the United States, have yet to sanction them.

Africa is no stranger to cases of biopiracy, and the Hoodia cactus was the subject of a landmark biopiracy case. The San people of the Kalahari have used this plant to suppress hunger pains for centuries. The active molecule involved in this function was identified and sold to Pfizer, a massive pharmaceutical company, for use as an appetite suppressant. Following a complaint and a case brought against Pfizer by the San Council, the community was, after a fight, awarded a share of the royalties, and a precedent was set that clearly communicated the right indigenous people have to stake a claim to their knowledge and to profit from it. A South African example originates in the small Eastern Cape town of Alice. The heavyweight pharmaceutical company, Schwabe, manufactures a syrup for respiratory tract infections made from the roots of Pelargonium sidoides and Pelargonium reniforme, marketed as Umckaloabo. Not only is this the use of the plant for this purpose theft of indigenous knowledge, but there are also many cases of the exploitation of labour during harvesting, and of unsustainable farming practices, which put the plants at risk of extinction.

Patent legislation requires that the product or service in question be novel and unique. Therefore, in the fight against biopiracy, scientists and researchers are attempting to collect and publish these plants’ properties and uses on public domains. Countries are also fighting back, with India battling to prevent the patent of the wound healing capabilities of Turmeric, and Thailand has appealed the patent of Jasmine Rice. With the threats associated with climate change, even more cases of biopiracy will come to light with the increased need for medicine and food sources that are resistant to drought, heat, and salt. While finding sustainable and resilient sources is a priority, it should not come at the expense of indigenous people.