PARIS - The United Nations declared 2010 the Year of Biodiversity. But 17 years after the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the issue of biopiracy is still pitching North against South.
Researchers and activists have coined the term biopiracy, "the theft of genetic resources", to describe corporations' practice of securing "profitable private monopolies by staking out patent claims on Africa's genes, plants, and related traditional knowledge", according to the African Center for Biosafety (ACB), based in South Africa.
The new international regime on access to genetic resources and benefit- sharing, first proposed in 2002, will be on the agenda at the forthcoming 10th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity that is taking place in Nagoya, Japan, between Oct 18-29, 2010.
The controversy is not new. German pharmaceutical giant Bayer filed a patent in 1995 for the manufacture of Glucobay, a drug that treats type II diabetes and is based on a bacteria strain originating from Lake Ruiru in Kenya.
Merck, a competitor, patented an anti-fungal identified in Namibian giraffe dung in 1996. In 1999, Canada's Biotech patented seeds from the ginger family that Congolese traditional healers have been using for ages to treat impotence. The list goes on.
According to Krystyna Swiderska, who researches biopiracy for the London- based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), "the problem is that there is no system to monitor biopiracy". The non-profit IIED promotes sustainable development.
"Every now and again, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) mount campaigns about particular examples of biopiracy, but it is difficult to know how often it occurs or how it affects industries such as pharmaceuticals, herbal medicines, agro-seeds, food, or industrial processes," she explains.
The problem is not limited to Africa, but "indigenous communities such as those in Africa are the holders of traditional knowledge, whether about medicine or crop varieties," says Swiderska.
In biopiracy cases remedies, long-identified and developed by traditional healers, are appropriated by North-based corporations that claim exclusive rights to their use through copyrighting ingredients or processes.
Africa's indigenous peoples have little institutional and regulatory recourse to protect their knowledge in these cases.
In all, 192 states and the European Union have now signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims among others at ensuring fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. Most states have also ratified it.
"But the problem is that a lot of these resources have already been collected and are now in gene banks or botanical gardens in the North. Until the commercial patent is launched, it is difficult to know what is going on," Swiderska points out.
In its 2009 report titled "Pirating African Heritage", the ACB documented seven new cases of suspected biopiracy, including in African countries such as Ethiopia and Madagascar.
Affected resources even include viruses that have been identified in the Cameroonian Baka people's blood and which are now "claimed as the exclusive intellectual property of corporations".
The damage is hard to measure, states Swiderska, but "the financial estimates are usually based on the size of the markets for natural products, which are massive".
Only in very rare instances are benefit-sharing agreements reached between traditional communities and corporations. Most indigenous people who have created or used such genetic resources for centuries never share in the profits.
"African countries are therefore potentially missing out on huge benefits", according to Swiderska.
The case of the Hoodia cactus, which the San people have used as an appetite suppressant in the Kalahari desert in South Africa for generations, is infamous.
The marketing rights to the plant were sold to drug-maker Pfizer to develop a weight-loss product. After years of campaigning, a deal was struck according to which the San would receive royalties estimated at a mere 0.003 percent of retail sales, according to the ACB.
The closest thing to a success story was the repealing of a patent on a South African type of geranium, the pelargonium, to which a German company had claimed exclusive copyright to develop cough medicine.
"The second part of the story should be to get the traditional knowledge of the community recognized, to get them accepted as stakeholders," declares Mariam Mayet, director of the ACB.
"We need governments to force companies to sign benefit-sharing agreements for communities to earn revenue", she adds.
But Swiderska points out that, "the problem is that the Convention (on Biological Diversity) only requires benefit-sharing from the collection of new genetic resources after it has come into force. It does not apply to anything before, and most of these collections have been done in the last 200 years.
"The system aims at protecting industrial innovation, through treaties and conventions, but there is nothing mutually binding on traditional knowledge," she adds.
With the 10th meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity around the corner, Swiderska believes the international regime on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing should include traditional knowledge.
But industrialized countries are "heavily opposed" to the inclusion of traditional knowledge in the regime, signaling another uphill battle for the South on the global terrain.