BIOPIRACY – SELYCIA CURWEN

Image: RR Medicinals (Unsplash)

We’re all familiar with piracy; the unauthorised use or production of works such as movies, music, and software. What many of us are not familiar with is biopiracy. As the name suggests, biopiracy is the use of indigenous knowledge for profit without permission and with little or no compensation or recognition. Bioprospecting is the search for biological or chemical resources for commercialisation. This has more ethical considerations wherein profits are recorded and returned to local communities, conservation efforts and/or the development of infrastructure which benefits the local population. Biopiracy occurs most often at the disadvantage of lesser developed, low and middle-income countries/communities, thus, furthering inequalities. The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), therefore, serves to ensure Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) as one of its three objectives. In 2014, the Nagoya Protocol entered into force as a supplementary agreement to the CBD which provides the legal framework specifically to do with ABS where Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) of access are mandatory. Neither the CBD nor the Nagoya Protocol are without fault; considering the incoherence between policies, legislation, patents, and intellectual property rights, to name a few. This article will proceed to demonstrate just how much of an impact biopiracy has and can have on a local level, environmental implications, and economic potential.

Local impact

Some have referred to biopiracy as biocolonialism wherein Multinational Corporations (MNCs) often control patents and intellectual property laws. This is often done through gene manipulation which has adverse effects on indigenous people including decreased food security, monocropping, ecological degradation and loss of biodiversity. Traditional knowledge is important for indigenous communities in that it provides food, employment, and therefore an income, as well as a sense of cultural identity and pride. Let’s use a homegrown example. The Alice community in the Eastern Cape is challenging two European patents that make use of two species of wild plant that have traditionally been used to treat respiratory infections and diseases, including Tuberculosis. The Pharmaceutical company with the illegal patents is in contravention to the CBD, as it uses these plants to manufacture a syrup to treat respiratory infections. The Alice community claim that the company stole their indigenous knowledge, exploited their labour to harvest and has driven the plant to near extinction. The community is demanding compensation, that the patents be withdrawn and that the plant be restored and used to the benefit of the community. In 2010, the Alice community won the dispute and the patent was revoked. The company, however, stated it would oppose the ruling. One way to ensure the safeguarding of traditional knowledge and biodiversity is by including the Nagoya Protocol in legislative frameworks as is being done in the Caribbean region. This way, the relevant indigenous persons such as the Amerindians and Rastafarians are fairly compensated and credited for the commercialisation of their traditional knowledge. 

Environmental impact 

Biodiversity within certain environments and of certain countries have now become valuable commodities. Unfortunately, many species of fauna and flora, endemic to those countries, are facing extinction. This is due to some species being routinely removed from their natural habitats, climates and ecosystems. This also then compromises the sustainability of those environments. By this I mean the natural “circle of life” of “food chain” is affected when one or more components of that ecosystem is removed. Some indigenous communities, after becoming aware of the little benefits they receive are voluntarily destroying crops, so that MNCs can’t profit from them. Recent statistics have shown a 70% decline in Asian countries’ traditional crop production. There is little incentive for these communities to preserve their natural resources and biodiversity. 

Economic impact

When it comes to traditional medicine for example, the methods and products used are being increasingly adopted and sold. This sector now has a significant role to play in the economic development of developing countries. The sector will also be of great use at a global scale in disease prevention, self-health care and health promotion in times of financial constraints where it could potentially reduce health-care costs. In the case of South Africa, the third most biologically diverse country in the world, biological richness is one of the main components for economic growth and development. The potential market size of bioprospecting is valued at 2 billion Rand. Employment opportunities are then created when bioprospecting the resources. Sound knowledge of the bioprospecting market sectors and the development of a bioprospecting commercial industry value chain is necessary in order to reap all the benefits including small business development. 

Possible Solutions

The measures to protect indigenous knowledge, practices and biodiversity are still largely ineffective.  This is because there are many inconsistencies with regards to policies, legislation and international law. One suggestion is to create a designated body similar to Fair-Trade International, with the specific function of awarding certification and providing standards and education programs against Biopiracy. This can be done with the help of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This convention ensures that wild animals’ and plants’ survival aren’t threatened during trade. At the consumer level, it will help consumers make a more conscious decision with their purchases as the products can be labelled as “not biopirated” and ethically sourced. With this transparency, the consumer’s trust in the company and product will grow and in turn will provide the indigenous communities with the compensation and recognition they deserve. At the national level, one way to ensure the safeguarding of traditional knowledge and biodiversity, is by inclusion of the Nagoya Protocol in legislative frameworks as is being done in the Caribbean region. Through these measures the relevant indigenous communities such as the Amerindians and Rastafarians can legally be guaranteed compensation and credit for the commercialisation of their traditional knowledge. 

Biopiracy is not a very common term in one’s everyday vocabulary and knowledge base but it’s time for more attention to be given to it. Local communities rely on their traditional methods and biodiversity for day-to-day functioning; medicine, food, income etc. By exploiting these, a ripple effect is created where individual families are affected and then the economy of that country loses money, thereafter the environment is degraded and extinction of certain species occurs. This also impacts the issue of climate change as all species of flora and fauna have a role to play in the global ecosystem. As was indicated above, the bioprospecting economic and social potential in many countries is immense. It is imperative then that the bioprospecting sector is treated as valuable and sensitive yet, profitable. Furthermore with appropriate measures in place such as legislative inclusion of the Nagoya Protocol and a designated oversight body, the consumer can make informed, ethical and conscious decisions when making purchases. 

Selycia considers herself a jack of all trades, with her interests and abilities widespread. She wants to pursue as many of them as she can in her lifetime. She believes life is not meant to be a straight “normal” line but a beautiful journey of segues. 

2 Comments on “BIOPIRACY – SELYCIA CURWEN

  1. Excellent work! Truly enjoyed reading this article. Can’t wait for the next one…

    Liked by 1 person

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