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PATENTS: Hands off our genes, say Pacific Islanders

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Hands off our genes, say Pacific Islanders
SOURCE: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia
AUTHOR: Anna Salleh
DATE:   20.03.2007

Hands off our genes, say Pacific Islanders

Pacific Islanders are demanding the power to restrict patenting of their
human, plant and animal genes, even if they run foul of international
patent laws.

A new book documents 16 'acrimonious' encounters between scientific
researchers and indigenous communities and calls for Pacific states to
take a united approach to gaining control over such patents in the region.

"Researchers are harvesting and patenting the Pacific region's genetic
resources by simply gathering and taking ownership over almost
everything in their path," says co-editor of the book, Aroha Mead of the
Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

She says lack of regulation and a lack of knowledge about the latest
genetic technologies and intellectual patent law has made the region a
major target for commercial gene hunters.

The book, Pacific Genes & Life Patents, is published by international
indigenous activist group Call of the Earth and the United Nations
University in Tokyo.

The book says a major problem is that communities involved in research
often don't give informed consent.

It documents an early example in which the US government filed patents
on material taken from the Hagahai tribe in Papua New Guinea and the
Solomon Islands in the early 1990s.

As a result, says the book, Hagahai immune cells can be bought today
from the American Type Culture Collection for U$216, despite subsequent
objections from those involved that they had not been informed.

The book documents other cases in which researchers gained consent from
people who were not representative of their community. This resulted in
conflicts within the community and the community's eventual withdrawal
from the research.

Culture clash

Scientific research and patenting can often offend deeply held cultural
values, says co-editor Dr Steven Ratuva, of the University of the South
Pacific in Fiji.

He says patents on genes in medicinal plants conflict with the
traditional view that such plants are common property, available for everyone.

While fair compensation for exploiting indigenous knowledge can be
important, there are other issues at stake, says Ratuva.

"It's not only a matter of money," he says. "There are certain aspects
of the culture which a lot of communities think cannot be bought or sold.

"Plants and animals are not seen as mere physical or biological entities
but also as embodiment of ancestral spirits," says Ratuva.

He says recognition of local people's world view, even if it appears
absurd to outsiders, must be part of the process in working out any
patent or bioprospecting agreements.

Vetting patents

The book renews calls for a Regional Pacific Intellectual Property
Office to vet patent applications and make sure they conform with
Pacific Island cultural values.

Leaders at the intergovernmental Pacific Islands Forum say they also
want such a regional office.

Mead says Pacific states should also pass laws to either prevent or
significantly reduce patents on life.

But Professor Brad Sherman, director of the Australian Centre for
Intellectual Property in Agriculture, says such laws would contravene
current World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on intellectual property
relating to plants and animals.

"It's at odds with the trend on intellectual property across the world
over the last decade which has seen any prohibitions on patenting of
life being removed from the laws," he says.

Economic sanctions?

Any countries that contravene the WTO rules would run the risk of
economic sanctions, says Sherman, based at the University of Queensland.

He says in his experience bioprospectors are often public sector
researchers, who are under pressure to generate income from patenting.

And he says tough gene patent laws would not stop such researchers from
taking material out of the Pacific region and patenting it elsewhere.

Mead is aware going against the tide won't be easy but is committed.

"Patents are out of control and a growing number of sectors of society
are indicating that limits do need to be drawn," she says.

The book Pacific Genes & Life Patents is freely available online.

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