What You Should Know about Biopiracy

Biopiracy is the act of using traditional knowledge about nature for one's own financial gain, and disregarding the intellectual property rights of the actual owners of that knowledge. Read though this Buzzle article to know about this unethical activity.
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Biopiracy
Did You Know?
From 2001, the Government of India has been compiling a traditional knowledge database by translating and publishing ancient manuscripts. It aims to protect the traditional knowledge from biopiracy.

In recent years, biopiracy has been one of the burning issues on the international platform. With globalization and intense commercialization of both tangible as well as intangible elements, even nature and the knowledge of indigenous communities about it, tend to be used up without permission, for acquiring large profits. This process of using the knowledge of nature and its elements, originally discovered by indigenous people, and utilizing the same for commercial purposes in order to achieve profits, and not even sharing the gains with indigenous people is known as biopiracy.

Biopiracy and the Developing Countries

Organizations, such as Greenpeace have been opposing biopiracy for quite sometime now.

They claim that biopiracy is mainly a result of the attitude of the developed countries to incessantly exploit the resources of the developing countries, so much so that not only the physical resources themselves, but also the knowledge that the native people have gathered about them over centuries tends to be exploited in a rather unfair and selfish manner.

This kind of attitude creates huge rifts and inequalities between the industrially developed and developing countries, which are extremely rich in natural resources.

Added to this, if a developed country manages to acquire a patent for that particular natural resource or technology, which happens in many cases, it is indeed very unfortunate for indigenous people, whose use of that resource is then either restricted or fully prohibited.

Biopiracy and Intellectual Property Rights

Numerous critics of biopiracy from around the globe claim that this practice leads to an extreme breach of the intellectual property rights of indigenous people. In legal terms, intellectual property is a kind of intangible property, which pertains to the creation of a human mind. In simple words, any knowledge possessed by an individual, which is either discovered or invented by him/her, or has been a part of his ancestral legacy is his/her intellectual property. The intellectual property of one individual cannot be used by others, without the former's permission or without adhering to the conditions laid down by the owner of that particular intellectual property.

The knowledge of indigenous people with regards to their natural surroundings and resources, thus, forms a part of their intellectual property. Opponents of biopiracy claim that global corporations extract genetic material, and patent them in their own names, claiming that these are, in fact, their own discoveries. Some have also opined that the Third World countries are more vulnerable targets of biopiracy, as it is easier to access their rich genetic diversity, owing to their often ignorant attitude.

For many years, there has been a big hue and cry regarding this issue, with important international organizations, such as the United Nations, alongside some other government and non-government organizations, taking an active part in trying to resolve it. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity gives more rights to access genetic resources to those countries, in which the resources lay. The purpose of the convention is to restrict the developed countries from exploiting the genetic resources of the developing countries so that the resources and knowledge about them can remain with indigenous people. Moreover, those who want to be benefited by such knowledge, cannot do so without appropriate permission of those who own it.

Classic Cases of Biopiracy

Biopiracy may have been happening in the world since ancient times; however, it has been recognized as an unethical act, only in recent times. Listed below are some of the famous cases of biopiracy and the breach of intellectual property rights.

The Neem Patent Case

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in collaboration with a pharmaceutical research firm, patented a technique of extracting an antifungal agent from the neem tree, thus, restricting the use of the plant in countries where it grows, viz. India and Nepal. This led to a large outcry throughout India and the developing world, and finally in 2005, the patent was overturned following a legal action by the Indian government.

The Enola Bean Case

Enola beans are yellow-colored beans, native to Mexico, which have a tremendous demand in the overseas market. In 1999, the beans were patented by an American company, which instantly sued all the Mexican farmers who were trading in them. This resulted in a huge drop in the export sales, with about 25,000 Mexican farmers losing their subsistence. Eventually, the lawsuit was filed in 2005 against the patenter, and in 2008, the patent was canceled.

The Hoodia Case

Native to the Kalahari Desert of South Africa, Hoodia is a succulent plant that suppresses appetite. For ages, this property of the plant has been traditionally known to indigenous San people. So in 1996, when South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research started researching on the medicinal properties of the plant, they had to enter into an agreement with the South African San Council, under which they would give about 6 to 8 percent of the total revenue earned by selling Hoodia products to the San people.

Despite the fact that biopiracy has been stated as an unethical act by the international community, instances of the same, seem ceaseless. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that biopiracy leads, though in an indirect manner, to an unjust exploitation of the people of the developing and the so-called Third World countries.
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Published: August 31, 2013
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