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Companies should allow indigenous people to benefit from the commercial exploitation of their genetic resources, such as plants that can be used to produce new drugs or cosmetics, according to new international guidelines.

The guidelines were adopted by 166 countries last week at the United Nation's Convention on Biodiversity meeting in the Hague, the Netherlands.

They come in response to growing concern in many biodiversity-rich developing nations that foreign 'bio-prospectors' are reaping the commercial and scientific gains of their genetic resources without compensating local people.

"These new guidelines establish generally accepted norms that promise a fairer, more collaborative approach to access and benefit-sharing as regards genetic resources," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The guidelines — which are not legally binding — advise governments on how to set fair and practical conditions for scientists or companies seeking genetic resources, and state that local communities must receive benefits such as profits, royalties, scientific collaboration or training.

"Contracts based on the guidelines will give biodiversity-rich countries additional incentives to conserve and sustainably use their resources," says Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention.

"They will offer local and indigenous communities with traditional knowledge fair compensation. And they will ensure a good deal for seed companies, plant breeders, and industries seeking genetic resources,"

But the environmental pressure group Greenpeace thinks the guidelines do not go far enough, arguing in a statement that "any agreement to stop biopiracy will be insufficient if the resources to be shared are disappearing".
And others argue that the whole premise of the guidelines — that genetic resources can be patented by an individual or company — is flawed.

“The gene pool should not be allowed to be claimed as commercially negotiable genetic information or intellectual property by governments, commercial enterprises, other institutions or individuals,” says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the US-based Foundation on Economic Trends.

He adds: "It is a classic case of colonialism, but now in the form of biocolonialism”.

© SciDev.Net 2002

Photo credit: G. Keith Douce, The Universityof Georgia, Image 1673020. www.forestryimages.org. April 20 2002
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