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Bio-pirates raid world's genetic bank



INDEPENDENT (London)  November 28, 1998


It all began with pepper, and it is to pepper that it has returned. The
lure of the spice trade brought the first Western merchants over the
Arabian Sea to the sun-baked bazaars of Trivandrum and Cochin for the
fiery black pod, piper nigrum, for which the exquisites of Europe had
developed a passion.

Five hundred years later, a new breed of merchants has come back to India
for the same commodity - and many others. But this time it is to obtain
ownership of the material in a new and, for many Indians, profoundly
disturbing fashion: by taking out patents.

They call it "biopiracy", and the progressive patenting by international
companies, mostly based in the United States, of plants, herbs, spices and
foodstuffs commonly available in the subcontinent and in use as medicines
and staple foods for centuries has caused wave after wave of disquiet.

Last year it was the patenting of turmeric and a tree called neem - this
has a hundred traditional uses, including disposable toothbrushes - which
was the focus of public anger, with large and vocal demonstrations in the
capital.

Two years ago pepper was in the limelight, the patent having been granted
to Sabinsa Piscataway of New Jersey for bioperine, a pure extract of
pepper that was clinically tested in the US and shown to increase the
bioavailability of nutritional compounds such as vitamins and amino acids.

Sabinsa has exploited the patent to claim exclusive marketing rights to
the pepper extract, much to the consternation and fury of some 47 Indian
growers and traders.

This year the US Patent Office cut even closer to the Indian quick when it
granted the American firm Rice Tech a patent for basmati rice. The firm
had earlier traded similar varieties of rice under names such as Texmati
and Kasmati; but now it can sell basmati, a name and flavour synonymous
with the finest Indian rice, as its own registered brand. Come next April,
when India brings its patent laws into line with the World Trade
Organisation's, it will also be able to impose its exclusive brand in
India, too.

The patenting of everyday 
items has galvanised a public whose memory is still raw from the insults
of the colonial age. But it is only the most obvious manifestation of a
new form of exploitation of the poor nations by the wealthy, from which,
as ever, the rich will get the profit and the poor will get little or
nothing.

The newest buccaneers to plunge into the Heart of Darkness in search of
profit are botanists and biologists, armed with nets and syringes and good
sharp knives and machetes for hacking off the leeches, and laptop
computers, too. Enlisting the help of tribespeople, they prowl through
dense forests in quest of unknown substances that have the potential to
transform our lives.

They are acting on a recognition that all the medicines on which the
West's hospitals depend are derived from a tiny proportion of the world's
natural wealth. Genetic scientists now acknowledge that the genetic wealth
of the world remains vast, almost entirely uncharted, and probably full of
incredible potential.

That's why the new "bio-sleuths" are dallying with vampire bats (they have
high hopes that their saliva contains a substance that may dissolve human
blood clots), eyeing up the pygmy hog and amassing mountains of berries
and plants and pieces of bark. As Helena Paul of London's Gaia Foundation
says: "It's a prospecting fever, like how people used to go to the Yukon
to pan for gold. You might just happen to patent the most valuable thing
in creation."

The discovery of this extraordinary genetic material, and its development
into medicines that could transform the lives of millions - most would
agree that was an absolute good. But as with pepper, turmeric, basmati
rice and neem, the same question arises: is not basmati rice indissolubly
Indian? Whose bat saliva is it anyway?

The new explorers depend on local wisdom: it makes far more sense to sit
at the feet of a witch doctor than to comb through every single weed in
the forest. But how are the witch doctor and his tribe to be compensated
for the intellectual property they so innocently hand over?

Activists in India and elsewhere fear that the biological heritage of the
developing world is disappearing into the gene banks of the wealthy, from
which it will return transformed, years later, as medicines or foods that
put the traditional producers out of business - having given no benefit to
the people from whom they were originally obtained.

It is, then, no accident that one of the rare exceptions to this
exploitation is Indian. Ten years ago, in the rainforests of Kerala, in
India's deep south, two botanists trudging through the hills with guides
from the Kani tribe were massively reinvigorated by some pale green
berries provided by their guides. Years later, tests proved the berries to
be effective in fighting fatigue, and an Indian pharmaceutical company
paid the institute for which the scientists worked #15,000 for the
formula, plus 5 per cent royalties on sales.

In an unprecedented gesture, the scientists decided to split the royalties
50-50 with the Kani tribe. There ensued a violent argument within the
tribe about who was to get the money, but that's another story.

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