Biopiracy and the Global Intellectual Property Regime: The Appropriation of Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge for Profits

As pharmaceutical research and agricultural practices become more advanced in the West, there is an increasing desire by researchers and corporations to extract bio-resources from the developing world’s flourishing biodiversity and use indigenous peoples’ knowledge in order to put those bio-resources to commercial use. The search and extraction of naturally-occurring materials and compounds for application in medicine and agriculture is called ‘bioprospecting’. Although the practice of bioprospecting may not seem problematic at first glance, a more cynical version of it – biopiracy – is consistently used to appropriate plants, indigenous culture and traditions to generate profits for western corporations with little to no benefit to indigenous communities that live in developing countries. Moreover, indigenous knowledge is often disregarded and looked down on by the scientific community, while their deemed “folk knowledge” is frequently used to facilitate the discovery and subsequent implementation of newly discovered compounds.

To put things into perspective, let’s look at the dispute that arose between the French Institute for Development Research (IRD) and government officials in French Guiana over the patenting of an active ingredient extracted from Quassia amara, a local plant that grows in South America. French researchers, through obtaining knowledge from the local community regarding their traditional methods of treating malaria, were able to isolate an active ingredient, Simalikalactone E (SkE), which was subsequently patented for its antimalarial properties. IRD argued that the active ingredient was not isolated through traditional Guianese methods of brewing tea from the local plant, rather it was found in a lab setting through methods of alcohol-based extraction. Thomas Burelli, a legal scholar at the University of Ottawa described this case as a “textbook example of biopiracy”. Eventually, the controversy and accusations of biopiracy that followed the dispute led to the IRD agreeing to share the economic benefits generated from the potential antimalarial drug as well as acknowledging the contributions that the indigenous community in French Guiana had made to the discovery process of the active ingredient, SkE. 

Instances of appropriation of indigenous peoples’ knowledge by research institutes and corporations have led to the implementation of more protections for indigenous populations in the international legal framework. The 2010 Nagoya Protocol was adopted to complement the international Convention on Biological Diversity in order to ensure more equitable sharing of profits with indigenous populations in biodiverse regions of the world as well as greater authority in the ways their local bio-resources are used.

Despite international efforts aimed to combat and mitigate the harmful effects of biopiracy, indigenous knowledge and traditions remain under-recognised. With the crisis of climate change looming over the planet and posing an existential threat to life, researchers are increasingly engaging in the genetic modifications of plants aimed at making them more suited for cultivation in harsher climates. These research efforts are often fueled by tapping into natural resources in biodiverse regions of the world, creating greater risks for cases of biopiracy and exploitation to arise. As a result, the issue of biopiracy remains a relevant topic that needs further attention from international law and more protections for local communities in developing countries.

Written by Bonnie Hassanzadeh, IPilogue editor and Clinic Fellow at Osgoode Innovation Clinic.

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