Skip to Main content

Recognizing Biopiracy

By Nick Meynen

Biopiracy is a concept introduced in 1993 by Pat Mooney and made popular by Vandana Shiva and other authors to describe a situation where indigenous or peasant knowledge of nature (e.g. on medicinal plants or agricultural seeds) is used by others for profit, without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people or peasants themselves.

Examples of biopiracy are easy to find. In the last month;

  • Brazil fined 35 firms US$44 million for biopiracy
  • Maasai sought the right to a patent on a lucrative drink sold by a Swiss firm
  • Malaysia is working on a new law to better share the benefits from biological resources commonly found in indigenous settlements

The Brazilian case might become a landmark ruling. Not because companies were actually fined, that is not new, but because the word biopiracy has reached the mainstream. Biopiracy is a term invented and cultivated by activists, but was now used by Natália Milanezi from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), an official agency. “Unfortunately, biopiracy is still not a crime, despite several bills in the congress trying to make it [such],” she told SciDev.Net.

It is difficult to overestimate the scale of biopiracy. A recent study claimed that Africa could be losing more than US$15 billion from its biodiversity as medicines, cosmetics, agricultural products and indigenous knowledge surrounding these are being patented illegally by multinational companies without there being evidence of benefits accruing to local communities in countries of origin. And that’s just for Africa.

With its many and ancient indigenous communities and a vast biological diversity, pirates of the biosphere have eyed India for long. In 2000, the US corporation RiceTec (a subsidiary of RiceTec AG of Liechtenstein) attempted to patent certain hybrids of basmati rice. This followed on an earlier controversy over a US patent on an extraction technique from the Neem Tree – a symbol of Indian indigenous knowledge and an integral part of India’s identity. The outrage that follow on the US patent forced US-ally India into court action against the US, with the patent eventually being overturned. Fortunately for India, they could prove that the extraction method had been described in ancient Indian texts.

But legal battles on the resource frontier are the top of the iceberg, as thousands of patents steal valuable information below radar, especially affecting people in less powerful states than India or Brazil. Brazil can convict powerful multinationals, India has the resources to invest in prevention. In 1999 they decided to develop a Traditional Knowledge database. Nearly 8,05,000 Ayurvedic formulations, 98,700 Unani formulations, and 9,970 Sidha formulations have been transcribed in patent application format in five languages (English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese). But that costs money, a lot of money, which for example many African states don’t have. In that sense, biopiracy is yet another case – like global warming – of adding insult to injury. Recognition of biopiracy by a Brazilian official is a step in the good direction, but much remains to be done on this frontline of the global struggle for environmental justice.

Comments are closed.