Benefit sharing is dead - Devinder Sharma (4/5/2004)

Biodiversity and IPRs
Benefit sharing is a dead concept
By Devinder Sharma

News report of the failure of the most written about benefit sharing partnership from India – involving the Kani tribes in Kerala, the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute at Thiruvananthapuram and a pharmaceutical company – comes at a time when Hawaii lawmakers are under pressure to put a hold on research based on Hawai'i endemic species until it is decided how to regulate such research and how to share any profit that discoveries might produce.

The Kani tribe story, which was more or less a public relations exercise for the policy makers, academics and some civil society groups who needed a justification for their own involvement in facilitating exploitation of biodiversity and the traditional knowledge that comes along with it, has now turned into a global showcase for biological theft. The TBGRI had initially encouraged 50 Kani families to undertake cultivation of arogyapacha plant species. The benefit every year was expected to be in the range of Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 per acre.  The income was expected to increase every year with the demand for leaves likey to go up. All that the Kani tribes have received so far is Rs 5 lakh (US $ 12000) as one-time payment when the product was licensed and a royalty of Rs 2,000 (US $ 5).

The traditional knowledge that the Kani tribe provided that led to the development of India’s wonder drug Jeevani, which is known to enhance immunity levels and has anti-fatigue and anti-stress properties on the other hand has a commercial value estimated to be in the range of at least US $ 50 million to 1 billion. A US-based company, NutriScience Innovations, is already using internet channels to market the drug. The end result has been disempowerment, and an undermining of local communities’ capacity to maintain their own biodiversity-based livelihood strategies.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) describes benefit sharing as a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies, and by appropriate funding. Effective regulation of access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing is currently one of the principal focus of international negotiations relating to the CBD and the Plan of Implementation arising from the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002.

This definition has been used very cleverly used by researchers and policy makers, including international agencies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to push forth the industrial interests and in the process turning a blind eye to the rights of the native communities who preserved the knowledge. While voluntary guidelines and several option for equitable sharing of benefits and technology transfer are being tossed around, the fact remains that control and misappropriation of proprietary rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge continue to be strengthen unabated in the meanwhile.

Knowing that the international organisations, including the CBD secretariat, are merely providing a helping hand to pharmaceutical companies and academic institutes in accessing precious biological resources, native groups and some environment organisation in Hawai, are calling for scrapping a contract struck two years ago between the UH Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center and a San Diego biotech company called Diversa. The way research has been conducted and how proceeds from the work will be distributed have become concerns among native groups. This has strengthened the belief that research will produce profits for industry with no benefit to native communities, forcing some of the Indian tribes to pass laws banning the harvesting of living things on their property.

State Representative Ezra Kanoho, who chairs the committee on water, land and Hawaiian affairs, has said in an interview that the contract gave the US-based Diversa exclusive rights to the discoveries based on research on environmental samples collected from Hawai'i's ocean resources. The Honolulu Advertiser says two bills, one originating in the Senate last session and one introduced this year in the House, are therefore aimed at establishing a moratorium on bioprospecting -- referring to scientific research aimed at finding a useful and profitable application for a process or product in nature.

Bioprospecting however, comes in handy for university researchers to provide unlimited access to valuable genetic resources at a throwaway price. Take the case of Papua New Guinea, a hotspot of biological wealth and knowledge. Under the aegis of a International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) -- a misleading title for a so-called partnership consortium mainly between the University of Papua New Guinea and the US National Institute of Health and the University of Utah, among others -- the University of Papua New Guinea is taking a lead role in executing a US $ 4 million project aimed at the search for marine organisms and plant species that contain chemical properties for treatment of tuberculosis, malaria, cancer, HIV and other diseases.

Already, a random plant collection and inventory for anti-tuberculosis, anti-malaria, anti-HIV and anti-cancer drugs in the last three years has resulted in the collection of 250 plant samples from about 120 plant species for testing. Papua New Guinea is excited at the benevolence of the ICBG (US $ 4 million, much of it going to US researchers), which will help in capacity building by teaching the local researchers in preparing an inventory of plants, collection of ethno medicinal plant species, preparation of extracts and screening them. It will also enable the researchers to learn the process of economic valuation of natural products, developing intellectual property rights legislation and conduct outreach programmes to educate communities into further sharing their knowledge.

The US National Institute of Health and the University of Utah will in the bargain make a neat US$26 billion a year, if the drug discovery programme in Papua New Guinea proves successful. In any case, the US $4 million investment in Papua New Guinea is peanuts by any known international standards. This classic case of unbridled biological theft and exploitation comes at a time when meaningless international negotiations continue unabated. The Papua New Guinea benefit sharing example is in tune with the earlier and equally exploitative experience of Costa Rica that has been hailed by the pharmaceutical industry as well as researchers and policy makers as a success story.

The National Institute of Biodiversity of Costa Rica (INBio) had in 1991 signed an agreement with the multinational Merck Sharp and Dome "to collaborate in the investigation of the existing biodiversity in Costa Rica's tropical forests in order to establish its potential application to human health and animals." Subsequently, INBio signed similar bioprospecting agreements with the cosmetic company Givaudan Roure in 1995 to explore the potential of biodiversity fragrances and aromas, which could be eventually synthetically reproduced. In 1996, it signed an agreement with another company Indena Spa to procure antimicrobial compounds to be used in cosmetics. Three years later, it also entered into an agreement with the US-based Diversa to explore new enzymes in acquatic and terrestrial mincrorganisms.

Numerous other agreements involve ICBG (the group operating in Papua New Guinea), British Technology Group, University of Massachusetts,  University of Strathclyde, NASA, American Development Bank, University of Cornell, and pharma company Bristol Myers Squibb. InBio has so far signed 11 international agreements on behalf of the Costa Rica government. Significantly, InBio provided unrestricted access to scout the tropical forests for a paltry fee. Costa Rica alone is home to five per cent of the world's biodiversity worth several billion dollars, and all it has managed to get in return is US 2.6 million.

From Merck and Co., InBio got US $ 1 million for the first phase of the project (it has been extended twice since then). In addition, it received laboratory equipment and required material for processing the plant and microorganism samples. While the percentage of royalty accruing from the products dervied from the explorations is being kept confidential, Merck enjoys the exclusive right to draw patents. If the INBio-bioprospecting programme is being construed as a successful benefit sharing experiment, it will be useful to know what will constitute an exploitative collaborative effort. In simple words, it is like selling oil for the price of water!

Not drawing any lessons, India which is home to 45,000 plant species, merrily goes on documenting traditional knowledge. Plant and soil samples are being regularly flown out of the country in the name of joint research collaboration. Some years back, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's directive to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – the umbrella organisation for public-sector agricultural research – not to allow individual institutes to go into scientific collaboration with research institutes abroad, was met with a strong opposition. ICAR has in fact announced a prize of Rs 5,000 for the best contribution of traditional knowledge that it manages to document every year.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) too is involved with documenting traditional knowledge without first ascertaining the flow of benefits, if any. Both the organisations support a network of civil society groups and institutes that receive a nominal funding in the name of documentation of innovations. Interestingly, the benefit that flows back to the community is a series of annual awards, which includes a small cash component and a plaque. And invariably, it is the 'empowering of local communities' and 'equitable benefit sharing' that is used to justify the misdemeanour. Both the government agencies in reality are busy selling the 'green gold' literally for peanuts, not realising that plant and animal biodiversity is to India (and for that to other developing countries) what oil has been for the Middle East.

The debate however will go on, and the corporations and the research institutes will continue to exploit the local communities for traditional knowledge. What therefore needs to be done immediately so to draw the international attention to this vexed problem, is to follow what Mexico did to a mischievous ICBG programme for bioprospecting. A five-year US government initiative "Drug Discovery and Biodiversity among the Maya of Mexico" aimed at identifying, patenting and commercialising Mayan knowledge and pharmacologically important biological materials through private biopharmaceutical enterprise and the University of Georgia, was finally shelved after two years. The project intended to collect and evaluate thousands of plants and microorganism used in traditional medicine by Mayan communities in order to promote drug discovery. It also proposed to patent and privatise resources and knowledge.

Many indigenous communities opposed the commercial exploitation of their genetic resources and traditional knowledge, even though the project was designed to foster benefit sharing so that local communities could derive benefits from their biological resources. After two years of local opposition from indigenous peoples' organizations in Chiapas, the bioprospecting project was finally cancelled.

There is no other way out. Or else, the developing countries will be made to sell the 'green gold' virtually free of cost in return for the 'benefit sharing' candies. #


(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Contact: [email protected])


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