Gobar Times
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Bio Piracy


B I O D I V E R S I T Y   B U L L E T I N

• ADOPTED ON: 16 October 2010


The mood of the participants at the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Nagoya, Japan, from 16-29, October was gung ho. Because they had been able to hammer out an international agreement to combat biopiracy and to share equitably the ‘benefits’ from research on natural resources.

Now, the most dynamic component of the CBD is that it recognizes the rights of the ‘communities’ on wild and domesticated resources. There is a catch though. While CBD is a legally binding treaty, it does not spell out specific targets, or list out species and areas to be protected. It provides the guidelines, but leaves it to individual nations to flesh them out and work towards the final objectives. The Nagoya meet certainly took a step forward but will it translate into concrete action? Will it lead to setting up a full fledged system of sharing that is both legally and financially viable?

We dug a little deeper to find out.

Biopiracy is defined as an industry’s systematic manner of taking over genetic resources and knowledge systems of local communities, and then seeking exclusive monopoly control (usually patents) over these.

In India's kitty

  • With only 2.4 per cent of the land area, India already accounts for 7-8 per cent of all the recorded species of the world.
  • These resources are of enormous economic value. On one hand they provide livelihood for millions of local people, and on the other, agriculture, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies across the world (including India, of course) make gigantic profits from products developed from germplasms.

In 1997, a Texan company called RiceTec Inc. was granted a patent for Basmati rice, the origins of which can clearly be traced to India. RiceTec began developing hybrid varieties of the rice calling it the American type of Basmati. Uproar from the Indian community followed, and in 2001, India won against RiceTec Inc., which was banned from promoting the rice under the name Basmati and most of the patents were withdrawn.

In a more recent case, Livzon, a major Chinese pharmaceutical company recently claimed to have discovered the medicinal properties of mint (pudina) and filed a patent for it, but India objected to the action, because the plant has been in use in India since the 9th century, as was proven through ancient scriptures and texts. The case was thus decided in India’s favour.

There have also been cases of patents filed for the medicinal use of turmeric and the use of neem oil as a pesticide – both were revoked when Indian communities retaliated, proving beyond doubt that they were in fact, already in use in India for centuries.

The Nagoya agreement declares that those looking to do business with natural resources or knowledge related to their use, must obtain permission from both the country, and the indigenous community involved. Further, they must agree to share the monetary and non-monetary benefits – including intellectual property rights.

The bad news is that this condition is not retrospective, which the developing countries were demanding vigorously. Instead it calls for a “global multilateral benefit-sharing mechanism” to address cases in which genetic resources were acquired prior to the new agreement

The Nagoya deal has glaring loopholes, but the intent is genuine and expectations high. However, experts and politicians need to go beyond fancy terms and innumerable clauses to come up with directives that have no loopholes and ensure that biopiracy offenders have no way out. After all, if the global trade agreements can be discussed down to the minutest detail of implementation, why not CBD?

For now, all we can do is adopt a wait and watch policy.