Business concerns in the West often make money by patenting their own medicines and agricultural products based on the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.
A US company has patented a yellow bean grown for thousands of years in South America, while pesticides using substances from the Indian neem tree have been sold by transnational corporations in Europe and elsewhere.
A firm in Germany is marketing a cure for respiratory ailments based on extracts from the African Pelargonium plant genus.
Some of these patents have been returned after years of litigation, but that is not enough for some participants at the UN conference on biodiversity, which takes place in Bonn, Germany, tomorrow through May 30.
The UN gathering wants to make traditional knowledge less vulnerable to unauthorized use and ensure that adequate financial compensation is made to the communities that possess such knowledge.
“The foundation stone has to be laid so that we can come to a concrete agreement by 2010,” said Konrad Uebelhoer, biodiversity director at the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ).
One of the main demands, he said, is that business and researchers be required to seek permission in the individual countries before they start searching for medicinal plants or genes.
The local communities should also be consulted in the application of traditional knowledge, which is based on practice and has often been passed on through many generations.
“It is necessary to have a clear formula for profit-sharing,” Uebelhoer said.
This could also include transferring the technology used to identify the active ingredients to the countries of origin, he said.
About 190 nations have signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The only industrialized nation that has not joined is the US.
Washington does not object to the first two goals of the convention — the protection of biodiversity and its sustainable development, Uebelhoer said.
It is the third aim of justly distributing the profits from the use of biological agents that has run into opposition from the powerful US pharmaceutical industry, he said.
Andreas Drews, who also works for the GTZ, said those applying for patents were not required to state where the biological ingredients come from, leading to an undetermined amount of biopiracy.
He wants changes made to the way patents are granted in order to stop this practice.
“We demand a formal disclosure of where the resources come from before biological ingredients, novel food and cosmetics can be registered,” he said.
“Novel food” is the term used for new foodstuffs, in particular genetically modified foods.
This is already the case in Norway, said Drews, whose organization is responsible for carrying out projects authorized by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
There has already been some success in ensuring that some of the wealth gained from derivatives of traditional knowledge is returned to the holders of that knowledge.
Among the beneficiaries are the San people in southern Africa, said Frank Barsch, an expert on the protection of species at the environmental organization WWF.
These hunter-gatherers chew the cactus-like hoodia plant to still hunger and thirst pangs on their long journeys through the inhospitable Kalahari desert.
The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) isolated the appetite suppressant P57 contained in the plant and patented it as a dietary supplement. Dutch-based Unilever is now developing the product.