[Taxacom] biopiracy in africa, and collection of specimens in Cameroon

Donat Agosti agosti at amnh.org
Mon Aug 28 03:07:29 CDT 2006

Here a little exchange on the biodiversity commons list-server which ought
to be of interest to systematists


Yes Donat,

The current practice in Cameroon distinguishes between collections for
commercial and scientific/ educational purposes. The later process has
always been easier but (like the case below) it becomes a little more
complicated when at the end of the day such collections move from the non
commercial domains to commercial. How to handle such situations practically
from this end is one of  the big discussion topics.



---- Original Message ----
From: Donat Agosti <agosti at amnh.org>
To: BioD_Commons at indaba.iucn.org
Sent: Monday, 28 August, 2006 8:15:22 AM
Subject: RE: [Conservation Commons] biopiracy, indigenous knowledge

Dear Augustine


Thank you for the kind words. Will you make a difference in the ABS policy
you are developing between access for commercial and scientific/conservation
reasons? It seems to me to be important to be able to collect specimens
without a huge administrative hurdle for systematic and conservation
purposes to warrant the development of the adequate charting, conservation
and monitoring of biodiversity?


I wish you all the best for the development of your ABS policies


With best regards



Donat Agosti



From: Augustine Njamnshi [mailto:abnjamnshi at yahoo.com] 
Sent: Monday, August 28, 2006 8:59 AM
To: BioD_Commons at indaba.iucn.org
Subject: Re: [Conservation Commons] biopiracy, indigenous knowledge


Dear Donat,

Thanks for this article. It is useful for discussions in Cameroon as we are
in the process of developing ABS policies for the country.

Augustine B. Njamnshi

Executive Secretary, Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme
Cameroon &

National Coordinator, The Access Initiative Cameroon (TAI-Cameroon)

BP 2626 Messa Yaounde

Tel/Fax: 237 2319953

Fax: 237 2314483 

Email:bdcpcsec at yahoo.com, abnjamnshi at yahoo.com

----- Original Message ----
From: Donat Agosti < agosti at amnh.org >
To: Biodiversity Commons Listserve <BioD_Commons at indaba.iucn.org>
Sent: Sunday, 27 August, 2006 10:23:39 PM
Subject: [Conservation Commons] biopiracy, indigenous knowledge

Attached a link to an article in today’s Observer talking about the complex
issue of biopiracy involving plants. The interesting point though is the
step from getting a patent on something which has been obtained for free.
Clearly it needs a lot of work out a new plant – but it would also not need
a lot to arrive at a solution which would suit both sides.


This is probably one of the more cynic arguments one could make

'In any case it takes a huge effort and a lot of money from recognising a
particular property in a plant and developing it into a drug. It can cost
between $200m and $500m [£100m-£250m]. If companies could not get the
protection of a patent then they simply would not bother. Then what would
happen is that the traditional knowledge of these communities would die out
with the people or be lost as they become westernised.'

Who cares at the end, whether the knowledge is patented or lost? It is not
for use for most of us.



Donat Agosti





The new piracy: how West 'steals' Africa's plants 

Swiss and British firms are accused of using the scientific properties of
plants from the developing world to make huge profits while giving nothing
to the people there. Antony Barnett reports 

Sunday August 27, 2006
The Observer <http://www.observer.co.uk/>  

The Busy Lizzie is one of the most popular plants among British gardeners,
providing instant colour to even the most challenging flower beds. Yet this
humble plant now finds itself caught up in an international row over
patents, human rights and the exploitation of poor communities in the
developing world.

The launch of a new strain of 'trailing' Busy Lizzie by the multinational
biotech giant Syngenta is, say campaigners, a classic example of what they
have dubbed 'biopiracy'. This term is being increasingly used by
environmental groups to describe a new form of 'colonial pillaging' where
Western corporations reap large profits by taking out patents on indigenous
materials from developing countries and turning them into products such as
medicines and cosmetics which can be extremely valuable in western markets.
In very few cases are any of the financial benefits shared with the country
of origin.

An analysis by The Observer of patents issued by the British authorities
reveal they have granted several companies patents for at least seven
products that orginated from naturally occurring African plants or

The dispute over the Busy Lizzie revolves around the drive to create the
perfect hanging basket display, a demand which feeds a lucrative market for
the horticultural industry. Despite its massive popularity the Busy Lizzie -
or Impatiens walleriana - has always had one downside: it is too upright.

For years botanists had been hunting for a way to make Busy Lizzies trail
downwards. Researchers believed that if they could find this magic extra,
the plant would be ideal for hanging baskets and a botanical gold mine would
be theirs for the taking.

With great fanfare in April last year Syngenta launched the Spellbound Busy
Lizzie. The company claimed that 'after many years of research' it had
produced a Busy Lizzie that 'can achieve, at maturity, trails of 70cm [about
28 ins with] masses of large flowers throughout the summer until the first

The Spellbound went on sale at garden centres across North America and
Europe for £2 a plant and Syngenta promoted it through retailers such as B&Q
and Wyevale Garden Centres with its own mascot: Lizzie the Spellbound Fairy.
It was a great commercial success and more varieties have been launched.

But behind the marketing glitz and talk of magical creatures, an analysis of
the British patent taken out by Syngenta for its new floral 'invention'
reveals that Spellbound's magical secret comes from a rare African plant,
the Impatiens usambarensis. This grows in the unique ecological habitat of
the Usambara mountain range in Tanzania , just south of Mount Kilimanjaro .
In its patent Syngenta describes this plant as having 'no commercial

Syngenta's botanists discovered that by crossing the two plants, the Busy
Lizzie displayed the much sought after 'trailing growth habits'. Despite
admitting that such hybrids happened naturally in Tanzania , Syngenta
claimed the new plant was its 'invention' and the British authorities
granted the company a patent on 6 February 2004.

The patent reveals that Syngenta obtained the seeds of the African plant
from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh that had cultivated them 'from
a wild collection from Tanzania '. A botanical gardens spokeswoman said it
had received the seeds in 1982 from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew .
They had been deposited there in 1976 by Christopher Grey-Wilson, a former
president of the Alpine Garden Society.

'This appears to be a classic case of biopiracy,' says Alex Wijeratna, a
campaigner from ActionAid. 'This is the silent plunder of natural resources
from developing countries. Here we have a large multinational taking out a
patent on a plant that grows naturally in a part of Africa and claiming it
is their invention . Now the company is making a fortune selling it to the
mass market, but the Tanzania communities that live in these regions will
not receive one penny.'

In 1994 more than 100 countries, including Britain , signed the
International Convention on Biological Diversity that promised to recognise
the property rights of developing countries. It did not prohibit the
collection of indigenous material but recommended that agreements should be
reached to share any commercial benefit that later emerges.

A Syngenta spokesman admitted it had paid nothing for the seeds. He said:
'We got them in 1990 before the international convention came into force. In
any case our paperwork shows that when we received the seeds nobody knew
exactly which country they came from.'

He rejects the claim of biopiracy. 'Many plants that grow today in a British
garden originate from another part of the world and I would not describe
that as a type of piracy.'

The US-based Edmonds Institute recently published a report listing more than
30 example of western medical, horticultural and cosmetic products it
alleged had been 'pirated' from Africa. An analysis of these patents by The
Observer reveals that the Syngenta patent is one of seven granted by the UK
authorities that now face accusations of biopiracy.

These include:

· A diabetes drug being developed by a British firm that comes from the
Libyan plant Artemisia judaica

· An immuno-suppressant drug being developed by GlaxoSmithKline that comes
from a compound found in a termite hill in Gambia .

· A treatment for HIV taken from mycobacteria discovered in mud samples from
the Lango district of central Uganda .

· Infection-fighting drugs made from amoebas in Mauritius and Venezuela .

· An anti-diarrhoea vaccine developed from Egyptian microbes.

· A slug barrier made from a Somalian species of myrrh.

Although the development of such drugs is widely welcomed and the companies
involved deny the accusations of biopiracy, there is a growing debate about
whether profits should be shared between western companies and developing

Beth Burrows, president of the Edmonds Institute, a non-profit body
specialising in education about intellectual property rights, said: 'Times
have changed. It is no longer acceptable for the great white explorer to
trawl across Africa or South America taking what they want for their own
commercial benefit. It is no more than a new form of colonial pillaging. As
there are internationally recognised rights for oil, so there should be for
indigenous plants and knowledge.'

The Brazilian ambassador in London , Jose Mauricio Bustani, described
biopiracy as 'a silent disease'. He said: 'It is hardly detectable, it
frequently does not leave traces and is an elusive activity perpetrated and
often abetted by many well-known multinational companies.

'Unfortunately, it does not attract the same media coverage or public outcry
as other environmental problems, such as deforestation and pollutant
emissions. But this silent pillage is robbing developing countries in
Africa, Latin America and Asia of the means to finance important sustainable
development projects, and is a powerful disincentive for their biodiversity
conservation efforts.'

Five years ago The Observer became the first newspaper to reveal how the
British drug firm Phytopharm had patented an active ingredient in a plant
called hoodia. This is a cactus-like African plant that is used by the San
bushmen in South Africa to ward off hunger before hunting trips. Phytopharm
has linked with Unilever to market this product, now being developed, as a
diet drug. Unilever has agreed to pay up to £21m to Phytopharm, which
originally claimed the tribe was extinct.

The Observer article prompted an international outcry and lawyers
representing the surviving African bushmen managed to forge a
benefit-sharing agreement that will see the tribe collect a small share of
any profits.

Yet Phytopharm's chief executive, Richard Dixey, strongly rejects the claims
of biopiracy and accuses campaigners of scoring an own goal. He said:
'Biopiracy is such an emotive term for a highly complex issue. The fact is
that many of these plants grow in more than one place and have been used by
many people throughout history. It is almost impossible to discover who
'owns' them.

'In any case it takes a huge effort and a lot of money from recognising a
particular property in a plant and developing it into a drug. It can cost
between $200m and $500m [£100m-£250m]. If companies could not get the
protection of a patent then they simply would not bother. Then what would
happen is that the traditional knowledge of these communities would die out
with the people or be lost as they become westernised.'

It is not just in the world of medicine and horticulture but also in fashion
that the debate over biopiracy rages. In 2004, The Observer revealed how
British scientists from Leicester University worked with US firm Genencor to
patent a microbe that lives in the caustic lakes of Kenya 's Rift Valley.

It was discovered that when jeans are washed with this, the microbe produces
an enzyme that 'eats' the indigo dye, giving them a naturally faded look.
The company, which denies any wrongdoing, has since made more than $1m in
sales to detergent makers and textile firms.



Dr. Donat Agosti

Science Consultant

Research Associate, American Museum of Natural History and Naturmuseum der
Burgergemeinde Bern

Email: agosti at amnh.org

Web:  <http://antbase.org/> http://antbase.org

Blog:  <http://biodivcontext.blogspot.com/>

Skype: agostileu

CV:  <http://antbase.org/agosticv_2003.html>

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