GENET archive


4-Patents: Peru drafts law to protect indigenous knowlegde

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TITLE:  Law to protect native intellectual property
SOURCE: International Press Service, by Abraham Lama
DATE:   January 12, 1999

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Law to protect native intellectual property

LIMA, Jan 12 (IPS) - The Peruvian government is drafting a law to
protect indigenous rights over their ancestral knowledge in an
attempt to prevent the history of plundering native wealth from
repeating itself, as well as controlling the international
exploitation of Peru's native plants. Indigenous communities will
be the intellectual owners of genetic resources coming from plant
species whose curative or nutritional values form part of their
ancestral knowledge, according to the text of the legal bill.

"Peru is one of the countries with greatest biodiversity in the
world and must begin utilising the competitive advantage this
implies," commented Jorge Caillaux, president of the Peruvian
Environmental Law Society, "but it must protect its natural
resources as well as the rights of its population." "Researchers
from transnational pharmaceutical firms travel throughout the
country gathering information on the native pharmacopeia, they
search for a species and take it back to their country to isolate
its components and then produce them commercially," he added.

The history of plundering Peru's native knowledge and technology,
as old as the pillaging of its natural resources, began with the
arrival of the Spanish colonisers. Nothing can be done now about
genetic rights to quinine, extracted from the 'quina' bush, nor
about the potato, sweet potato, corn, rubber, or tobacco, which
long ago became part of world knowledge and industrial use. And
perhaps nothing can be done about more recent natural products,
such as cat's-claw, a plant whose bark boost the human immune
system and is, as a result, effective in treating cancer and
AIDS, and has been patented by laboratories in several countries
as their own product.

"The story of quinine is illustrative of the plundering of
indigenous communities' ancestral knowledge: in 1636 an Incan
healer cured Spanish viceroy's wife of her recurrent malaria
fevers using bark from the quina bush," said Peruvian doctor
Fernando Cabieses. Excited about the results, the Count of
Chichón's wife distributed the "Countess's powder" to the people
of Lima who suffered tertian fever. Jesuit priests in Peru sent
the remedy to Europe with the name "Jesuits powder," and soon
after, cardinal Lugo dispersed the miraculous medication under
the name "Cardinal's powder." "Rome in that era was the malaria
capital of the world," affirmed Cabieses, director of the
National Institute of Traditional Medicine.

"Surrounded by marshes, its 'mal aire' (bad air) led to the
disease's name 'malaria.' The unhealthy conditions of the Vatican
meant that the seat of Christianity was nearly abandoned several
times, after killing various Popes and dozens of cardinals," he
added. By 1650, the mysterious remedy had become popular at the
Vatican and awakened interest in other European capitals. In
1679, Britain's Robert Talbot had quina plants sent from Peru and
began to market the powder derivative, which in 1820, French
chemists Pelletier and Caventou perfected, isolating quinine, or
"chinchonina," named in honour of viceroy Chinchón's wife.

"They honoured the countess, but nobody ever remembered the Incan
doctors who discovered its curative properties, who genetically
developed the plant and used it for many years," commented
Cabieses. The doctor explained that when the new law is approved,
international pharmaceutical laboratories that currently exploit
Peru's bio-genetic resources free of charge will have to pay the
native communities for the right to continue. Among those
participating in drafting the legal bill are representatives from
indigenous communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and
officials from the ministries of Health, Industry, Agriculture
and from the National Institute in Defence of Intellectual
Property (Indecopi).

The bill is at the stage of receiving comments and input from
native communities and business organisations that will be
involved in overseeing implementation. The draft of the final
legal text is expected to come under debate in February. "For the
first time in the world, a government is proposing to establish
protection for the collective knowledge of indigenous peoples, a
system to regulate research, production and marketing of genetic
resources," said Beatriz Boza, of Indecopi. The bill establishes
regulations for access to genetic resources. If passed, it will
make Peru the third nation in the world to possess such
legislation, after the Philippines and Bolivia.

But unlike the Bolivian and Philippine laws on access to genetic
resources, the Peruvian bill recognises native communities'
ownership of the knowledge they and their ancestors have
developed. Brendan Tobin, of the non-governmental Association for
the Defence of Natural Rights, said that "when the law is
applied, the communities will be able to grant pharmaceutical
laboratories, via contracts, the right to use certain plants
whose therapeutic value they have known about for years." Tobin,
advisor to the jungle-dwelling Aguaruna community in its
negotiations with the transnational firm Monsanto, expressed his
support for the orientation and text of the proposed law.

According to the bill, pharmaceutical companies must earmark 0.5
percent of their profits from native-origin products to the
Indigenous People's Development Fund, in addition to the price
they agree to pay for the right to use each product. "The bill is
an important step forward because it establishes that money from
this fund is to be managed by the indigenous people themselves,"
said Tobin, "Finally their rights are being recognised."


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