Posts Tagged ‘Biopiracy’

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Biopirates attack!

January 20, 2010

by Sylvia Estrella, guest writer*

Brazilwood exports, as seen by André Thevet, 1575

Only 12 countries are considered mega-biodiverse, that is, they have 70% of all the species of vertebrates, insects and plants known by Science. Brazil is the leader of this ranking. It is estimated that it has around 150,000 described species, or 13% of all the plants and animals known in the planet. But 90% of this potential is still to be identified.

The Amazon is home of most of these biological resources, with more than 2,500 species of trees. It is also the region with most freshwater fish species –  between 1.4 million and 2.4 million, according to the ecologist Thomas Lewinsohn, from Unicamp (Campinas University).

But the abundance of life in the Amazon and in Brazil as a whole is also an Achilles heel. The great majority of these species are unknown to local scientists. Thus, they are vulnerable to the being patented in the international market by  foreign labs, corporations and research institutes that can patent their genetics in the international market.

Another famous biopiracy episode, extremely harmful for Brazilian economy, was the smuggling of seeds of rubber tree in 1876 by the British Henry Wickham. They were taken to Malaysia and, years later, that country became the main latex exporter in the world.

More recently, in the 70s, Squibb Laboratories patented the drug Captopril, for hypertension, after a Brazilian research developed with the poison of jararaca snake (Bothrops jararaca), from the Atlantic rainforest. Then, in the late 90s, the name cupuaçu (a fruit from the Amazon related to cocoa tree) was registered by a japanese corporation. Later, this register was canceled, thanks to the efforts of several non-profits from the Amazon region.

Jararaca

The  only way of refraining this is by investing in the research and description of new species, as well as in biotechnology. It is essential to develop a Brazilian pharmaceutical industry able to generate drugs and active principles patents, inspired by the traditional knowledge of natives and other rainforest people. That is the only way to avoid the losses related to biopiracy in the country. In 2003, during a Congressional investigation about this subject, it was estimated that the country loses, every year, more than US$ 5.6 billion because of the illegal animal, genes and traditional knowledge traffic.

*Sylvia Estrella is a Brazilian journalist and translator specialized in the Environment and also Aviation.