Peruvian region outlaws biopiracy

Women from the Potato Park, an initiative for six of Cusco's native communities, now benefit from the regional law. Copyright: Zoraida Portillo

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[LIMA] A region of Peru is claiming to be the first in the world to enact a law outlawing biopiracy and protecting indigenous knowledge at a regional level.

Cusco — in the Peruvian Andes, once the capital of the Inca Empire — has outlawed the plundering of native species for commercial gain,including patenting resources or the genes they contain.

Corporations or scientists must now seek permission from, and potentially share benefits with, the local people whose traditions have protected the species for centuries.

Indigenous communities can now implement ways to protect local resources, including creating registers of biodiversity and protocols for granting access to it.

"I know of no other local or regional laws similar to this one that brings a legal framework for access to the genetic resources and traditional knowledge and practices — I think this is a significant precedent," said Michel Pimbert of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

Local scientists and activists believe the law’s value lies in the fact that for the first time a regional government will be empowered to challenge its national government on biopiracy.

"The new law is a good example of how local governments can create the appropriate legal and institutional framework, as well as the mechanisms to implement it, to ensure that biopiracy does not prey on the creativity of indigenous peoples and local communities," Alejandro Argumedo, director of Asociacion ANDES, a Cusco-based indigenous organisation, told SciDev.Net.

But while the law is an important precedent, it could come into conflict with national laws regarding the recording of indigenous knowledge, said María Scurrah, a Peruvian scientist specializing in farmer’s rights.

The National Institute for the Protection of the Consumer and Intellectual Property has created a National Register of Indigenous Knowledge. But the Cusco law says that native communities of the region will make their own records and share them only according to certain rules.

"I believe that ancient knowledge should be kept by the community and be brought to a national registry to ensure payment to each community for each variety and species registered," said Scurrah. "That is the only way to pay for each community to be the guardian of biodiversity."

Pimbert said that the most significant aspect of the law is that it shows progress can be made at a regional level, rather than working through "central governments that have become increasingly distant and unaccountable to citizens in many countries throughout the world".

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