The fight against biopiracy must embrace both legitimate science and social justice if biodiversity itself is not to suffer.
Scientists have long been implicated, whether actively or tacitly, in developed countries' campaigns to seek out and secure natural resources to fuel industrialisation and maintain their own living standards.
This was the motive behind many 'scientific' expeditions to explore and map out the centre of Africa in the 19th century. More recently, studying indigenous medicine has become a cost-effective way of identifying active chemical ingredients from plants that might be valuable in modern medicine.
Inevitably, as the commercial and economic motivations behind such 'scientific' enterprises emerge, resentment grows at the perceived one-way flow of benefits. In response, strongly-worded commitments to enforcing greater social justice are developed. The most influential of these is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which came into force in 1993, giving states ownership, and thus control, over the plants and animals within their borders.
Equally inevitably, efforts to implement such commitments have frequently generated protest from scientists. They miss their previous freedom to collect, transport and disseminate research samples virtually at will, and view the requirements for permits and prior approval as a mire of red tape that frequently delays projects.
Wave of protest
The recent imprisonment of a Dutch-born researcher, Marc van Roosmalen, who has been working in the Brazilian rainforest for more than 20 years and whose work has helped name several newly identified species of primates, has been a focus for scientists' anger (see Scientists threaten strike over jailing of primatologist).
Van Roosmalen previously worked for the National Institute for Research in the Amazon in Manaus, in the heart of Amazonia, but now runs his own private research institution. In June he was sentenced to almost 16 years in prison for infringing laws introduced to protect Brazil's treasure trove of natural resources.
His treatment triggered a wave of protest from scientists, both in Brazil and, eventually, internationally. For many scientists the case symbolises what they see as the unfair victimisation of the scientific community by those seeking to preserve natural environments at any cost.
The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation Scientists, for example, officially described van Roosmalen's treatment as a government-backed "attack on the practice and profession of biological scientists", and called for his immediate release. The Supreme Court did provisionally release van Roosmalen from prison last month.
The rights and wrongs
However, van Roosmalen's case is more complex than it might initially appear. Firstly, he has faced charges of "improper appropriation" relating to the decision to offer sponsors the opportunity to have their name attached to newly discovered species – a practice which, although widely adopted in the past, now raises eyebrows in the research community itself.
And it is clear that under Brazilian law, van Roosmalen should have sought permission to capture and keep some of the animals he used for research. His frustration at the lengthy procedure this involves is understandable, but without permission, his experiments were illegal.
But it is widely believed that many other, equally frustrated, scientists collect samples without authorisation and without facing legal action. Indeed, some of van Roosmalen's supporters blamed his conviction on his high profile clashes with politically-influential landowners over campaigns to save the Amazonian rainforest, rather than regulators' zeal to protect local biodiversity.
Whether or not there has been undue political influence, it is clear than regulators in Brazil and elsewhere do not get the financial and human resources needed to carry out their tasks efficiently. The most obvious result has been the long delays in granting permissions for experiments, which has left all sides frustrated.
Arguing it out
Scientists can legitimately argue that delays are costly for their research, and that they themselves could usefully contribute to formulating national policies, laws and regulations that implement CBD commitments.
But when they defend their own interests in the name of freedom for scientific inquiry, their case is weakened by the misdeeds of their predecessors, and occasionally their peers, whose abuse of such freedoms contributed to the current situation (see Developing nations 'need genetic resources rules').
Conservationists also have a case when they defend the CBD, and the regulations flowing from it, as essential weapons in the fight to conserve native fauna and flora. But claims on who rightfully 'owns' this material are often more complex than activists acknowledge. Activists also need to acknowledge that a healthy science base is essential to their own cause (see Ownership squabbles 'hindering' conservation).
Avoiding lose-lose situations
Fortunately, the situation has improved significantly since the mid-1990s when, after the CBD was signed, there was a virtual freeze on collaboration between biologists in developed countries and those in countries such as Brazil. Careful negotiation has led to effective guidelines – for example on sharing samples – that show accommodation is possible.
But tensions and distrust remain high, as the intense feelings aroused by the van Roosmalen affair demonstrate. So scientists and conservationists alike, particularly the more 'activist' of the latter, must remember that they share a common long-term interest in sensibly designed and effectively implemented mechanisms that protect biodiversity.
Nobody wins when regulations are either ignored or overzealously applied, whatever the supposed justification.