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  • Developing nations link up against biopiracy

Twelve of the world’s most biodiversity-rich nations have signed an agreement to stop foreign companies from patenting their animal and plant products without offering benefits for local people.

The agreement — signed on 18 February in Cancun, Mexico — reflects concern that current international regulations, contained in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, are insufficient to prevent the ‘biopiracy’ of genetic resources.

“Up to now, our nations have not benefited from this great wealth because there hasn’t been an equal sharing between the nations involved nor with the rural and Indian groups that use and protect biodiversity,” said Mexican environment secretary Victor Lichtinger.

The 12 countries — Brazil, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, South Africa and Venezuela — have pledged to press for more equal trade rules on patenting plant- and animal-based products at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa in August.

“The new rules should include, among other things, certifying the legal possession of biological material and informed consent and mutually agreeable terms for transferring it,” says a joint statement released by the countries, which together contain 70 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.

The fact that nations are coming together to improve legislation represents “a fundamental shift in (our) powers of negotiation with developed countries,” Lichtinger said.

But others question whether genetic resources should be patented at all. “Traditional knowledge is not just a commodity,” says Henk Hobbelink, co-ordinator of Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), which promotes the sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity. “It is important that there is a fair deal between countries, but it is more important that traditional knowledge remains in the local community.”

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