Southern Africa's indegenous resources fall prey to biopiracy

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afrol News, 5 April - By Tinashe Madava

The illicit collection, smuggling and trade in biological resources from southern Africa has become a multi-million-dollar business encouraged by northern governments despite the existence of international conventions, to which most of them are party, declaring the practice illegal.

Participants at a recent workshop titled Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in the Context of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Negotiations, took a swipe at the north for what they say are deliberate policies and acts aimed at depriving the south of its valuable natural resources.

The workshop was hosted by the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association in Harare, Zimbabwe. Most participants said that institutions such as the WTO, which are dominated by the north, are destroying the food security and self-reliance of developing countries.

The process is already in full swing. Northern institutions are siphoning away valuable biological resources for development into genetically modified food stuffs and seeds to be sold back to the south at huge profits in a complex web of biopiracy involving transnational corporations (TNCs) and academic research institutions.

This was confirmed by officials of the World Customs Organization at the 1998 World Travel Mart in London. Back then, the Travel Mart officials stressed that customs authorities and the travel and tourism industry should be warned and educated about the unprecedented illegal movement of items, including valuable flora and fauna, across the globe. This has resulted in vast damages and economic losses for countries.

Participants at the Harare workshop charged that there is evidence that biotechnology companies are sending scouts around the world - often posing as innocent tourists - to discover plants that have genetic, commercial value for the drug and food industry.

Under the guise of ecotourism, local people are often employed as "nature interpreters" to guide visitors in biodiversity-rich places and to share with them their indigenous knowledge about biological resources and how to use them.

These bio-pirates are especially hunting for local seeds, medicinal plants and even for genes of indigenous people, and once acquired, companies are likely to claim intellectual property (patent) rights on them. 

Participants called on governments in the region to work together to develop legislative mechanisms to stop this blatant theft. Some of the ways that were flagged during the workshop were the use of patenting legislation and the use of effective sui generis systems or a combination of both designed to protect plant varieties.

The term sui generis, is Latin for, of its own kind of class. The mechanisms discussed in the workshop fall under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement which is one of the framework agreements constituting the WTO agreement.

The TRIPs agreement sets up minimum requirements for intellectual property rights but is not an international patent system. The negotiations of the agreement at the GATT Uruguay Round was presented to African countries as a "take it or leave it" package to the extent that it undermines the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which came into force in 1993.

- Whereas the CBD calls for national sovereignty over biodiversity, the TRIPs agreement promotes the application of intellectual property rights and monopoly ownership and commodification of biological diversity, says Andrew Mushita of the Harare-based Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT). This will lead to the decline of biodiversity which sustains people's livelihoods.

The TRIPs agreement "could damage sustainable agriculture, food security, political stability and democratization as more crops become subject to monopolistic ownership of transnational corporations," he adds. 

According to Mushita, for Africa, there are grave consequences associated with intellectual property protection of plant varieties. He argues that protection of plant varieties will place undue restrictions on farmers practices, lead to genetic erosion and adversely impact on research and development.

However, since most African countries are party to these international agreements, a combination of available mechanisms such as patenting and sui generis are crucial in order to protect their natural resources and the rights of the small holder farmers and all communities from the profiteering TNCs.

What is needed is to study all agreements entered into with the north to sift out clauses that seek to subvert developing countries. Governments in Africa should engage local experts in all such discussions with the north. 

The participants called for awareness programmes to be made available to the grassroots communities who run the risk of dealing with unscrupulous "ecotourists" as well as making available general information that has to do with biopiracy.

They urged governments to educate and empower customs officials so that they are on the look out for biopirates. Such a move also needs to be backed with financial resources as well as relevant legislative mechanisms.

By Tinashe Madava, Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC)

Tinashe Madava / Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC). 
This article can be reproduced with credit to SARDC and the author

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