By Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi
Biopiracy is a condition where indigenous knowledge of nature, originating with indigenous people, is used by others for profit, without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people themselves. Biopiracy comes under the umbrella term bio prospecting used to describe the process of discovery and commercialization of new products based on biological resources. Bioprospecting often draws on indigenous knowledge about uses and characteristics of plants and animals. For example, when bioprospectors draw on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants which is later patented by medical companies without recognizing the fact that the knowledge is not new, or invented by the patenter, and depriving the indigenous community to the rights to commercial exploitation of the technology that they themselves had developed. These practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting companies that engage in ‘biopiracy’. These practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting companies that engage in ‘biopiracy’.
A famous case of bioprospecting is about patenting of Neem and Basmati Rice. US based pharmaceutical research firm received a patent on a technique to extract an antifungal agent from the neem tree which grows throughout India and Nepal. Indian villagers have long understood the tree’s medicinal value. Widespread public outcry echoed throughout the developing world including India. With the result, legal action was taken by the Indian government and the patent was eventually overturned. US Corporation RiceTec attempted to patent certain hybrids of Basmati rice. The Indian government intervened and several claims of the patent were invalidated. One common misunderstanding is that pharmaceutical companies patent the plants they collect. While obtaining a patent on a naturally occurring organism as previously known or used is not possible, patents may be taken out on specific chemicals isolated or developed from plants. Often these patents are obtained with a stated and researched use of those chemicals. Generally, the existence, structure and synthesis of those compounds is not a part of the indigenous medical knowledge.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) , which came into force in 1993. secured rights to control access to genetic resources for countries in which those resources are located. One objective of the CBD is to enable lesser developed countries to better benefit from their resources and traditional knowledge. Under the rules of the CBD, bioprospectors are required to obtain informed consent to access such resources, and must share any benefits with the biodiversity-rich country. However, some critics believe that the CBD has failed to establish appropriate regulations to prevent biopiracy. Others claim that the main problem is the failure of national governments to pass appropriate laws implementing the provisions of the CBD. The Nagoya Protocol to the CBD (negotiated in2010) will provide further regulations. The CBD has been ratified by all countries in the world except USA. The 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) is a further a relevant agreement. The ethical debate has sparked a new branch of international patent and trade law.
Bioprospecting contracts lay down the rules, between researchers and countries, of benefit sharing and can bring royalties to lesser-developed countries. However, the fairness of these contracts has been a subject of debate.
Unethical bioprospecting contracts (as distinct from ethical ones) can be viewed as a new form of biopiracy. In a way, biopiracy has become a case of ethical bankruptcy in a world where everyone seems to raising slogans of morally and technologically advanced societies. In response to concerns of biopiracy raised by research into turmeric, neem and basmati rice, the Government of India has been translating and publishing ancient manuscripts containing old remedies in electronic form, and in 2001 the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library was set up as a repository of 1200 formulations of various systems of Indian medicine, such as Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha. The aim is to protect India’s heritage from being exploited by foreign companies. Hundreds of yoga poses are also kept in the collection. The library has also signed agreements with leading international patent offices such as European Patent Office (EPO), United Kingdom Trademark & Patent Office (UKPTO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office to protect traditional knowledge from biopiracy as it allows patent examiners at International Patent Offices to access TKDL databases for patent search and examination purposes. The innovations and seed developments of rural India were once priceless – this is no longer the case. As, in the words of Vandana Shiva, both conglomerates and TRIPs are “not just for new inventions but for the knowledge of our grandmothers”.
Even though we live in a technologically advanced age but the debate on equilibrium between professional as well as social ethics has been going on since decades but, in reality, there has been no practicality seen on the ground. The only way ethical values can be developed is through proper education which, according to R.N. Tagore, is not mere bookish knowledge. It means shunning the trend of inculcating materialistic attitude in our children directly or indirectly because the main reason of ethical bankruptcy, in the final analysis, is the craving for materialism.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]