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Biopiracy in the Amazon

Stop exploitation!

Bolzano / Bozen, 23 September, 2003

"Should a vaccination against AIDS ever be found, it will be in the Amazon Rainforest". With this and other arguments, big companies sneak into the Amazon rainforest in order to export, mostly illegally, vegetal and animal species that may be used to produce new medicines. This phenomenon, called biopiracy, consists in the theft for business use of intellectual resources, i.e. therapeutic know-how and techniques of native peoples, and of biological resources belonging to regions that are rich in biodiversity. The Amazon regions of Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Suriname and Guyana, already impoverished by other forms of exploitation, are being threatened by this new form of aggression.

Biopiracy first started about 15 years ago, and is carried out in several ways. Firstly, traffickers may disguise themselves as tourists, collect mushrooms, animals, seeds and plants and send them abroad. Secondly, they may buy areas of tropical forest and use them to conduct different experiments in order to classify species. Thirdly, they may enter local communities with various excuses, with the aim of obtaining know-how about the resources they intend to use. Once they are taken, biological species are copyrighted abroad and used to obtain different products that are put on the market. In this way, the original owners of biological species and know-how, i.e. the indigenous peoples, have no access whatsoever to the profits that originate from this business.

Numerous cases of biopiracy take place in the Amazon region. The best known concerns Ecuador and the patent of Ayahuasca. During the 1980s, Loren Miller, the owner of a pharmaceutical laboratory in the United States, managed to get several plants of Ayahuasca from the Cofán people. Once he arrived back in the United States, he patented the plant species. In 1996 the Coordination of the Organisation of Native Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA - Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, ) took legal action in order to have the patent revoked, given that Ayahuasca is sacred to the peoples of the Amazon, who have been using it for hundreds of years. The patent was withdrawn, but Miller eventually managed to get the plant patented again in 2001.

Always in Ecuador, 750 "Epipedobates Tricolor" frogs were stolen and then patented in the United States. Epipedobates Tricolor produce Epibatidine, a pain reliever 200 times stronger than morphine. Another famous case of biopiracy is that of Yacón, in Peru: thanks to its properties the plant, a sweet but not fattening tuber, might be used as a substitute for sugar. Involved in the illegal exportation of Yacón are the International Center of Potato (Centro Internacional de la Papa) and the Peruvian authorities. The latter, despite knowing that seeds of Yacón were being taken abroad, did nothing to prevent it. This caused a huge economic loss for Peru and other countries that have cultivated Yacón for centuries. According to several studies, the illegal trafficking of biological species and know-how causes the Amazon region over 10 billion USD annual losses.

The Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker - GfbV) calls for immediate action in order to stop biopiracy. From a political standpoint, all the commitments that were taken on at the Congress on Biodiversity must have priority over commitments that were taken on by governments in other occasions, for example during the World Trade Organisation negotiations. Moreover, intellectual property rights must exclude patents regarding living organisms or parts of them. Finally, access to genetic resources or know-how must be obtained solely with the permission of native peoples and local communities and must not clash with collective rights.

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