Indigenous people posses important traditional knowledge that have allowed them to sustainably live and make use of biological and genetic diversity within their natural environment for generations. Traditional Knowledge naturally includes a deep understanding of ecological processes and the ability to sustainably extract useful products from the local habitat.
Most Traditional Knowledge is handed down through generations. Components of Traditional Knowledge that are especially relevant to our global survival include knowledge of:
• Food, crop varieties and agricultural/farming practice
• Sustainable management of natural resources and conservation of biological diversity
• Biologically important medicines
The conservation of species, habitat, and biodiversity are essential to the continued survival of indigenous and rural people. By conserving the customs and habitat of indigenous persons we concurrently reduce emissions from deforestation and ecosystem degradation. Furthermore, the opportunity for cultural survival is a basic human right. The traditional knowledge is facing a problem of bio-piracy.
The act of Piracy is unauthorized publication or reproduction of another person’s work or material. When someone indulges in piracy, the accused is using someone’s else’s work illegally or without taking any permission. Biopiracy is the appropriation of another’s knowledge of use of biological resources. Of late, the major issue involving biopiracy is the exploitation of patent biological resources or knowledge of farmers and traditional communities and indigenous tribes by many organizations and multinational companies. The innovations and discovery of the pharmaceutical and agricultural researches are not new as to qualify as invention as they are based on centuries of knowledge of the traditional societies.
Example of Biopiracy
• Patenting of Neem (Azadirachta indica)
The people of India in a variety of ways have used neem, since time immemorial. Indians have shared the knowledge of the properties of the neem with the entire world. Pirating this knowledge, the USDA and an American MNC W.R. Grace in the early 90s sought a patent (No. 0426257 B) from the European Patent Office (EPO) on the “method for controlling on plants by the aid of hydrophobic extracted neem oil.” The patenting of the fungicidal properties of Neem was an example of biopiracy.
• Patenting of Basmati
Basmati is a long-grained, aromatic variety of rice indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. In 1997 the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted a patent (No. 5663484) to a Texas based American company Rice Tec Inc for “Basmati rice line and grains”. The patent application was based on 20 very broad claims on having “invented” the said rice. Due to people’s movement against rice Tec in March 2001 the UPSTO has rejected all but three of the claims.
• Rice Biopiracy
Syngenta is a biotech company that tried to grab the precious collections of 22,972 varieties of paddy, India’s rice diversity, from India’s rice bowl, Chattisgarh in India. Syngenta has signed a MoU with the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (IGAU) for access to Dr. Richharia’s priceless collection of rice diversity. Dr. Richharia is the ex-director of Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), Cuttack and is known as the rice sage of India who has done pioneering work in this field.
• Biopiracy of African Super-sweet Berries
A west African plant, Pentadiplandra brazzeana is a source of a protein called Brazzein which is 2000 times sweeter than sugar. Natives have used Brazzein as a low calorie sweetener for centuries. Sometime back the gene encoding brazzein was isolated, sequenced and patented in USA. It is proposed to transfer the brazzein gene into maize and express it in maize kernels. These kernels will then be used for the extraction of brazzein. This development could have serious implications for countries exporting large quantities of sugar.