March 14, 2006
Brazil grapples with jungle piracy dilemma
By Terry Wade
SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - In 1999, a young Brazilian
botanist named Eliana Rodrigues dug through forests in an
ambitious project with Krao Indians to collect and identify 400
tropical plants and berries they use as medicine.
Proud of being socially conscious, she and her research
partner, Dr Elisandro Carlini, signed agreements with three
villages to share royalties from all commercial products and
patents developed from the research.
To help the tribal economy near the Amazon rainforest, they
agreed to pay the Indians to cultivate some medicinal plants.
The hope was to identify more of Brazil's vast but largely
unknown biodiversity, and find cheap treatments for dozens of
ills afflicting the world. But an employee at the federal
Indian affairs agency accused them of biological piracy and got
a court injunction halting their project.
Seven years later, they are still stuck in legal limbo,
waiting for Brazil's government to pass laws giving scientists
access to plants on Indian reservations and in national
forests, and defining how researchers should share any profits
with poor local communities.
"This is the biggest imbroglio scientists are facing in
Brazil," Carlini told Reuters.
People who oppose research on Indian lands, many of them in
the government, worry scientists will hand over findings to
foreign pharmaceutical companies, allowing them to make huge
profits from unique local cultures in the Amazon. Indians,
meanwhile, resent the paternalistic nature of the state that
obstructs their wishes to collaborate with researchers.
Stopping biopiracy -- which happens when scientists or
companies fail to pay local groups or governments in exchange
for their plants or knowledge -- will be on the agenda at a
United Nations conference on biodiversity in Curitiba, Brazil
from March 20-31.
Biopiracy must stop, most people agree. But sharing
benefits is complicated. Anthropologists worry cash payments
could erode Indian cultures. Economists wonder if payments
should be made to a municipal, state or federal authority.
Scientists are anxious for change. Brazil has an estimated
60,000 plant species, but less than half are defined in
textbooks. Discoveries could generate business.
TRUCKS AND SATELLITE TV
Even when companies risk the uncertain legal environment
and cobble together benefit-sharing plans with poor
communities, they are often caught in ethical dilemmas.
Experiments by companies that consider themselves socially
or environmentally aware have had mixed results.
Natura Cosmeticos SA, a company that makes beauty products
based on tropical plants, relies on rainforest communities to
help it develop new extracts and pays them for their help.
"Working with locals saves us light years of research,"
said Eliane Anjos, the company's environmental affairs
director. "But paying locals isn't easy. It can destroy local
cultures and cause social and economic imbalances."
In one community of river dwellers in the Amazon that
provides Natura with plant materials, the company wanted to
install a simple sewage system to fight childhood illnesses.
Instead, it found itself quashing a demand for a pickup
truck by explaining to residents that there were few roads to
drive on in the rain-soaked region. TV satellite dishes were
also a popular request.
In that same village, one resident took nearly all of the
money Natura had put into a community trust fund, abandoned his
wife and moved to the modern state capital with another woman.
Experts also disagree on how to define who should receive
benefits, how much they should receive and for how long.
Brazil has signed international agreements to protect
biodiversity and has turned parts of those agreements into
domestic law, but like other countries rich in biological
wonders, such as many in Africa, it has yet to decide how to
deal with biopiracy. Poor governments are often too weak to
monitor and enforce biodiversity laws.
As local laws lag, patents that raise biopiracy issues are
starting to be dealt with by the World Trade Organization and
the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization.
Many Brazilians think it is strange that Japanese companies
have tried patenting common names for two edible Amazonian
fruits, Cupuacu and Acai, to sell abroad.
"Biopiracy is happening and companies who want to do
research don't know what the rules of the game are. The market
is obscure," said Angela Kong, a partner at the Pinheiro Neto
law firm in Sao Paulo.
For a developing country like Brazil, murky laws are
holding back a type of economic development that is far less
damaging to the Amazon than activities like logging, poaching
"Brazil's unique competitive advantage is its biodiversity.
It has 22 percent of the world's plant species, but federal
laws aren't prepared to deal with this," said Antonio Paes de
Carvalho, president of Extracta, a small Brazilian company that
isolates molecules to discover drug therapies.
(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg)