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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News :Scramble for Green Gold Kills Asian Biodiversity

Scramble for Green Gold Kills Asian Biodiversity

  Environmental News Service
October 2, 2002

By Kalyani

NEW DELHI, India, October 2, 2002 (ENS) - The quest to commercialize plant genes by transnational companies and national governments is destroying a wealth of genetic resources and livelihoods across the Asia-Pacific region, says a report released Tuesday.

"Plants are vanishing so quickly major drug [becomes] extinct every two years," said the coauthors of the report, Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), a Barcelona based campaigns group, and Kalpvriksha, an Indian environmental organization.

"Overall, communities are increasingly losing control over their own plants and are being increasingly exploited for their knowledge," the authors claim.

The report, called "Traditional Knowledge and Biodiversity in Asia- Pacific: Problems of Piracy and Protection," examines the plight of people in the region who rely on plants - such as turmeric and basmati rice, and trees, such as the neem of India and the mamala of Samoa - for food and medicine.

A global push for the green gold - the commercial use of genetic resources - by companies with foreign as well as national bases, is leading to the loss of precious plant life in the region that stretches from India and Malaysia to China, the Philippines and Pacific islands such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the report says.

Applications by several U.S. companies for patents over products from the neem tree, used as a source of fungicide in India for over 2,000 years, have been opposed by farmers and by local and international nongovernmental organizations.

Some NGOs, notably the British group ActionAid, have responded to such patent applications by themselves seeking official permission for ownership over, for example, conkers, the fruit of the horse chestnut tree that is the focus of a game popular during fall among British schoolchildren.

Leaves, seeds, and bark of the neem tree are used in cosmetics, soaps, sprays and capsules to treat bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, and to boost the immune system.

These groups argue that traditional knowledge, especially that of indigenous people, has been brought under the control of legislation on Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), internationally recognized rules covering "owners of ideas, inventions and creative expression."

As with laws governing the possession of physical property, IPRs allow owners "to exclude others from access to or use of their property."

But the report explains that the patent system does not work for traditional knowledge holders because the collective nature of traditional knowledge makes it impossible to identify an individual inventor or even a geographic location.

The required patenting criteria of novelty may not be possible if the plant remedy has been in use for generations. And, the cost of applying for a patent and protecting it against infringement may be prohibitive, the report points out.

With annual global sales of products derived from plant genes estimated at between US$500 billion and US$800 billion, according to the GRAIN report, "many countries, and the large businesses they support, increasingly want to control these resources and the knowledge associated with them for commercial purposes."

Many Asia-Pacific governments are under intense pressure from industrialized countries to adopt bilateral IPR agreements on traditional knowledge, GRAIN reports. The United States, for example, signed an agreement with China in January 1992, requiring it to amend Chinese national IPR laws. In 2000, Vietnam signed a similar agreement with the United States.

Pharmaceutical companies have recently turned their attention to kava (Piper mythesticum), a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) confirms. Kava is a cash crop in the Pacific, where it is valued for a ceremonial beverage. The GRAIN report mentions kava as an example of bioprospecting that operates to the detriment of indigenous peoples.

Kava, originally used as a ceremonial drink, is now packaged and sold under seven U.S. patents as a stress reducer and mood elevator.

Over 100 varieties of kava are grown in the Pacific, says the AAAS, especially in Fiji and Vanuatu, where it was first domesticated thousands of years ago. In North America and Europe, kava is now promoted for a variety of uses. French company L'Oreal, a global giant with US$10 billion a year in sales, has patented kava to reduce hair loss and stimulate hair growth.

"Traditional knowledge provides useful leads for scientific research, being the key to identifying those elements in a plant with a pharmacological value that is ultimately destined for the international markets," the GRAIN briefing says.

It concludes that "industry is making deeper and deeper inroads, with increasingly active support from governments, while the mechanisms to protect and strengthen the rights of communities are still experimental and weak."

"While there are a lot of developments [aimed at protecting communities] on paper," said Shalini Bhutani, GRAIN's regional program officer for Asia, "we find that the people's concerns are not being adequately reflected in national or international fora."

The report recommends that governments consider alternatives to Intellectual Property Rights contracts which would enable greater protection of traditional knowledge. The authors call for stronger network building among NGOs and for the documentation of traditional knowledge.

GRAIN and Kalpavriksh urge governments to bolster the rights of indigenous people to control the genetic resources that are the underpinnings of their livelihoods.

The full briefing report is online at:



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