Recent cases of patents claimed on drugs and crops deriving from traditional knowledge may have grabbed headlines, but have often resulted in a poor deal for indigenous groups.
Indigenous peoples and peasant farmers who have helped develop the world's plant genetic resources through their traditional knowledge say negotiations aimed at the commercial exploitation of plants must involve them from the very start.
But their demands have turned into a long-running dispute over sovereignty, national boundaries and ownership of knowledge. As the Curitiba meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) draws to a close, the men and women who nurture the world's biodiversity have struggled to make their voices heard.
Although the Convention itself is supportive of traditional knowledge and so-called benefit sharing, many government delegations did not include members of indigenous populations. And those indigenous peoples who were able to make it to Curitiba want to maintain an independent voice that recognises their special position.
"There is a proposal to include indigenous people as part of country delegations. But there is a problem: in the Philippines there are 110 indigenous peoples groups but the government would only allow one or two onto the delegation," said Victorino Saway, a representative of the Panagtagbo people who live on Mindanao Island.
He added: "When you are part of a delegation, you speak their language. You will be controlled – your language will be controlled."
At the CBD negotiations, the issue has been termed Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS), but the official title masks potentially difficult aspects relating to economics, politics and culture.
A rightful claim?
Indigenous peoples and smallholder farmers, through their traditional knowledge, innovation and practices have over centuries developed and nurtured plant species for agricultural and medicinal use, contributing not only to 'development' but also to cultural and biological diversity.
But now companies are developing medicines and crops that take advantage of these plant genetic resources. Keen to protect their financial interests – and recoup the investment made into research and development – companies usually protect their products with patents. This means that from time to time a new product comes on the market and reaps massive profits for the company.
Indigenous people and some developing countries with high levels of biodiversity are now demanding ownership over what they claim are their genetic resources. And they want to be part of negotiations about how these resources are used, by whom, and on what terms.
A central issue is the concept of Prior Informed Consent (PIC) – an approach supported by the CBD.
"The prior informed consent of knowledge-holders must be attained before their knowledge can be used by others," the CBD says.
Saway agrees: "If prior informed consent is ignored there will be no basis for negotiations. It provides a basis for saying yes or no to access."
Tussles over sovereignty
Perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding ABS is that of national sovereignty. As with other international agreements signed by governments on behalf of their peoples, national sovereignty forms the very basis of the CBD.
So when an indigenous group claims knowledge of a plant, or demands to be involved in negotiations, their government can say that the knowledge belongs to the country as a whole, and will therefore be negotiated by the national government.
Sylvester Rogers from Senegal, who works for the Community Biodiversity Development Conservation Network, told the meeting: "We believe that recognition and protection of the rights of indigenous and local communities with regard to agro-biodiversity and their traditional knowledge is non-negotiable and integral to any strategies and efforts towards the sustainable management and use of biodiversity."
Without that recognition and protection, he said, the utilisation of biodiversity will be nothing more than economic and commercial transactions, reducing indigenous people and local communities to "mere vendors of biological resources without respect to deeply held spiritual, cultural and socio-economic connections to the earth and biodiversity."
Power to the people
Indigenous people have a powerful backer in Tewolde Egziabher, an Ethiopian environmentalist and scientist who heads the African Group at CBD negotiations. He supports an international regime which includes PIC and certificates of origin of knowledge.
Such a regime, some campaigners say, would not only lead to fair and equitable sharing of the world's biological wealth, but also result in fewer patent disputes, some of which have grabbed headlines in recent years.
One such case involved the Hoodia plant, which pitted the San population of southern Africa – supported by a coalition of NGOs – against western and other pharmaceutical firms.
The Hoodia is a succulent plant – found in the Kalahari desert – that can suppress appetite, and could potentially be used as an anti-obesity drug. The plant's active ingredient was patented by a South African research institute in the late 1990s. It gave a license to a British company, which in turn sold additional development and marketing licenses to Pfizer, the multinational drug company, and the food giant Unilever.
After a protracted dispute, a deal was struck with the South African research institute in 2003 whereby the San people of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Angola would receive a percentage of the royalties from the sales of any future drugs produced from their knowledge of the Hoodia plant.
The San based their claims on a CBD provision, which says indigenous groups should get a share of benefits resulting from the commercial use of local genetic resources and traditional knowledge.
But there are countless examples where indigenous populations have lost out, as Ujalla Masdik, an Indian campaigner, reminded the conference.
She referred to a case involving an energy-giving plant used by Kani tribal people in the southern Indian state of Kerala. 'Discovered' accidentally by members of an Indian scientific expedition in the early 1990s, the plant, known by the Kani as arogyapacha, was tested by a local research institute.
The institute then obtained a license from the Kerala Drug Control Department to produce and market a tonic based on the plant. It was named Jeevani (derived from the Sanskrit word meaning 'life').
The product was patented in 1996, following which the research institute transferred the production license to a local drug manufacturer. Although the Kani Trust received half the license fee and royalty, they were not involved in the negotiations.
"Some countries have made local or national laws about indigenous people, but others don't recognise them, or say 'we are all indigenous people'," said Saway of the Philippines.
Saway and his colleagues, working in the Mount Kitanglad region of the Philippines, have drawn up an inventory of plants based on their traditional knowledge, which the community "claims as our own".
As a precaution, the inventory has been written in the community's language and the plants' uses have not been explained. "We also have our cultural guards who will apprehend anyone taking our customary rights without our consent," he added.
An industry perspective
The biotechnology industry, the usual target of attacks by NGOs and activists working on biodiversity issues, backs an access and benefit sharing system that is workable and provides value for use of genetic resources.
Alwin Kopse, a spokesman for the biotech corporation, Syngenta, said he supported national regimes that were "practical and transparent." Certificates of origin, he said, might be easier to obtain for products derived directly from plants, rather than those that were indirectly derived.
Another problem with issuing certificates of origin, Kopse said, was that certain genetic resources are shared across different countries or indigenous peoples. "What we want is a workable benefits access regime" – one that is not loaded with technocratic stamps, which, he argued "may turn out to be costly".
He accepted that the industry should now be prepared to pay for access to genetic resources but said Syngenta prefers to offer "other benefits" rather than hard cash.
If the CBD protocol on access and benefit sharing is to work, Kopse pointed out, it would be important to define the nature of benefits and who should receive them – a complex set of issues in his view.
Ochieng' Ogodo is a Kenyan journalist who specialises in science reporting. His coverage of GM issues has won him a Panos fellowship to report from the CBD meeting in Brazil in March 2006.