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Rhino News :Scramble for Green Gold Kills Asian
Scramble for Green Gold Kills Asian Biodiversity
|| Environmental News Service
October 2, 2002
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 that...one 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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: http://www.grain.org/publications/tk-asia-2002-en.cfm