Two patents granted in the United States between 2000 and 2002 and another for which an application has been filed have put "maca", a high altitude Andean plant that is used by indigenous people in Peru, at the centre of a new battle against biopiracy, which involves the construction of an international network against the misappropriation of traditional knowledge.
One of the patented maca-based products claims to raise testosterone levels. But the countries that registered the plant "did not invent a thing," said lawyer Isabel Lapeña, with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law. "They merely took advantage of indigenous, campesino knowledge of the plant, which is known as ‘natural viagra'," she told IPS.
News of the patent was met with howls of outrage, and a working group was set up by campesinos (peasant farmers) and scientists to study maca-related patents that have been registered in the United States, and investigate ways of challenging them.
A National Commission for the Protection of Biodiversity and "the collective knowledge of indigenous peoples" was also established two years ago.
Peruvian activists are now encouraging the replication of their experience, through the creation of similar movements in other countries, by means of the Andean-Amazon Initiative for the Prevention of Biopiracy.
The initiative, which is to be extended beyond South America's Andean and Amazon regions, so far includes partner institutions in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
The idea is to combat all kinds of biopiracy, and it is useful to be able to refer to cases that have had major repercussions, like the ones involving maca in Peru and cupuaçú in Brazil, said Lapeña.
Cupuaçú is an Amazon fruit from the cacao family, which is used to produce chocolate-like sweets, beverages and other products for export. Several years ago, a Japanese company registered the name of the fruit as a trademark, but thanks to legal action, the patent was annulled.
Today, Amazonlink, the same non-governmental organisation based in the Amazon jungle state of Acre that spearheaded the campaign "Cupuaçú Is Ours" is focusing on another case of biopiracy.
Several U.S. companies, universities and researchers, including the Seattle-based ZymoGenetics Inc., have filed for patents for a toxin found in the skin of the Monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor).
The secretion has traditionally been used by indigenous communities in the Amazon jungle in shamanic hunting rituals.
Pharmaceutical companies and researchers found that the secretion contains new peptides that have analgesic properties and are capable of combating ischemia, a condition in which the blood flow (and thus oxygen) is restricted to a part of the body, said Michael Schmidlehner, president of Amazonlink.
"We do not want to overturn the patents," said the activist, who also pointed out that synthetic versions of the peptides have already been produced.
But the case serves to highlight the need for "informed prior consent", as established by the Convention on Biological Diversity, before traditional knowledge is used, and to distribute the benefits of such knowledge among its holders, he said.
What such cases involve is "theft," said Manoel Roque de Souza, better known as Roque Yawanawá, from the Yawanawá people in the state of Acre.
The Yawanawá are among the communities that use the secretion from the frog for medicinal and ritual purposes, as do other indigenous groups in Brazil and Peru, like the Katukina, Ashaninka and Kaxinawá.
The case of the Monkey frog prompted the Yawanawá leaders to contact Amazonlink to help orient their actions. That gave rise to the "Vigilant Villages Project", aimed at raising the awareness of, and training, indigenous communities to help prevent corporate biopiracy.
The Initiative for the Prevention of Biopiracy is seeking to expand the network of organisations involved in fighting biopiracy, encourage investigations, disseminate information, and even influence institutions that deal with patents, like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), said the Peruvian activist, Lapeña.
Many of the patent applications filed in Brazil do not even mention the origin of the genetic material that was used to make the product in question, said Henry Novion, with the non-governmental Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA).
The Mar. 20-31 Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8) taking place in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba is tackling several related issues.
The most controversial aspect of the debates involves access to genetic resources and the distribution of the benefits derived from them, a point of especial interest to "megadiverse" countries - countries with enormous biological diversity - and indigenous and other rural communities.
The creation of an international regime to regulate such questions, within the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, has been proposed. It would include mechanisms to ensure that the holders of traditional knowledge receive a fair share of the benefits generated, monetary or otherwise.
Another point of concern for indigenous and other local communities involves the protection of "traditional knowledge, practices and innovations," as an aspect of the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, in accordance with the commitment assumed by the signatories to the Convention. But so far, few nations have adopted programmes or taken steps towards that end.
The Convention on Biological Diversity is seen by many environmentalists as a counterweight to the WTO when it comes to the question of patents. "In the WTO, the rights of traditional knowledge-holders are not taken into consideration," complained Lapeña.
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