Traditional property rights and biopiracy
by Nigel Poole.
For many centuries, the medicinal value of the leaves and seeds of neem (Azadirachta indica) has been known in India, its country of origin. Neem products have valuable medicinal properties and many traditional uses as medicines, pesticides, insect repellents, fertiliser, diabetic food, soaps, toothpaste and contraceptives.
Recently there has been much research to investigate and prove these properties. Neem products are also commercially important. The neem industry in India, and in other countries where neem has been introduced, has focused particularly on producing pesticides that do not damage the environment.
It is not surprising that there should be large-scale commercial interest in neem. Since the 1950s, many patents have been taken out for neem products in the US, Japan and in European countries, covering a range of products from toothpaste to contraceptives.
In 1994, a US firm and the US Department of Agriculture were jointly granted a patent for a fungicide made from neem oil. This ruling brought considerable opposition from NGOs and environmental organisations opposing biopiracy. A petition against this patent was made arguing that:
- biological resources are a common heritage and should not be patented
- a patent would prevent local communities (who have used the product for centuries) from continuing to use neem
- the patent might block economic development in developing countries.
The European Patent Office agreed to withdraw the patent in May 2000 arguing that nothing has been invented, and that the knowledge and use of neem had been widespread in India and other places for many decades. Support from India was vital in overturning the patent. Indian laws to prevent biopiracy are now likely to be strengthened.
What is the issue?
Biopiracy is now a topic of much concern, with neem as just one example. The World Trade Organisation still allows for the ‘ownership’ or patenting of genetic materials unless, as with neem, it can be proved that the development of a product is not new because it is traditional knowledge.
What can be done?
At stake are the rights of people in poor countries, particularly traditional users of indigenous plant and animal products, to continue to use those materials. For example, the right of farmers to save their own seed without paying royalties to seed companies.
What can be done if outsiders threaten the livelihoods of communities who traditionally use a product about to be patented? At community level, documenting the traditional knowledge of plant products by local people has many benefits. This may include the protection of traditional users against false claims about so-called ‘new’ products, processes and uses.
Secondly, new laws need to be made to provide adequate protection for traditional resource use by poor people. Local advocacy organisations such as India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, have been important in protecting traditional knowledge from commercial exploitation. There are international organisations at work such as the UN World Intellectual Property Organization.
Biodiversity is a matter of life and death for plants and animals. Biopiracy may or may not harm biological diversity, but it will certainly harm the prospects of the fair and equal sharing of the benefits from using natural products. In certain cases, biopiracy may mean life or death for local communities.
Nigel Poole is a lecturer in agricultural economics at Imperial College at Wye, Ashford, Kent, TN25 5AH, UK.
Information for this article came from Down To Earth: Vol 9, No 2, p13 (2000).