By Mario Osava
IPS-Inter Press Service/Global Information Network, 4 July 2005

Some 500 products based on plants native to Peru are registered in patent offices in the United States, Europe and Japan, but many of them may have been produced by breaking Peruvian laws on access to biodiversity and traditional knowledge.

This complaint was voiced by Santiago Roca, the president of Peru's National Institute for the Defence of Competition and the Protection of Intellectual Property, at the first meeting of intellectual property officials from the eight Amazon basin countries. These hundreds of products were derived from just seven native plants from Peru, Roca told IPS at the Jun. 30-Jul. 1 meeting in Rio de Janeiro, in which officials from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela took part.

The statistics on the number of products based on native Peruvian plants came from a study by a commission set up by the Peruvian government to examine patent registries in Europe, Japan and the United States. The report, which was completed in January, laid the groundwork for verifying whether the applications for patents were legal. Roca said authorities from his country will now investigate whether patent applications infringed Peruvian legislation on access to genetic resources, which requires prior consent from and compensation for the indigenous communities that possess the traditional knowledge used in developing the products.

Peru's "regime for protection of indigenous peoples' knowledge related to biological diversity", which was adopted in 2002, regulates these questions in Peru, and orders remuneration in exchange for access to traditional knowledge, which goes into a fund to be distributed to the communities involved, he explained.

Of the 500 products, two or three cases of proven legal infractions will be selected, to demand the revocation of the patents, and "the success of this first step will set a precedent" that will pave the way for a broad offensive against biopiracy, said Roca. Biopiracy is defined as biological theft, or the unauthorised and uncompensated collection of indigenous plants, animals, microorganisms, genes or traditional communities' knowledge on biological resources by corporations that patent them for their own use.

Countries with great biological diversity like those of the Amazon jungle must protect that wealth and the knowledge about it held by traditional indigenous peoples, just as industrialised nations apply pressure around the world to fight the piracy of their products, like software, films and albums, Roca argued.

The meeting of intellectual property officials, which was sponsored by the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation (ACTO), was a first step towards the sharing and exchange of information on biopiracy, cooperation and international negotiations on patents. Achieving effective recognition of "collective rights" requires an effort by all countries, because national laws generally only protect the copyright and intellectual property rights of individuals or companies, not of the communities that developed the knowledge in the first place, said ACTO secretary-general Rosalia Arteaga.

Arteaga said the question calls for debate and reflection among countries, especially those with "mega-biodiversity," like Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. In today's world, new rights are constantly emerging and being defined, such as in the field of aeronautics and space activity, Arteaga, a former vice-president of Ecuador, commented to IPS.

A pressing question now is obtaining reparations for indigenous communities for the knowledge that they have collected over centuries and which is being used to develop food products, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, she underlined. This will be "a long process," and is a particularly sensitive issue in the Amazon jungle region due to its immense biodiversity, she said, pointing out that each hectare of this part of South America contains more biological diversity than all of Europe combined.

An emblematic case of the illegal appropriation of biodiversity occurred a few years ago in Brazil, when the Japanese company Asahi Foods patented the name of an Amazon fruit, cupuazo, which is related to cacao. Legal action that was initially led by non-governmental organisations got the patent annulled in Japan and Europe this year.

Brazil's National Institute on Industrial Property has begun to inform its counterparts around the world of the names of Amazon jungle plants in order to prevent further cases of inappropriate registration of patents, said Roberto Jaguaribe, secretary of industrial technology in Brazil's Development Ministry.

Peru's experience could make a significant contribution to Brazil's struggle in this area, since many species are shared by both countries, like the "quiebra piedra" (literally "stone breaker") plant used to make herbal tea for people suffering from kidney stones or gallstones, said Jaguaribe, who called for joint international legal action against biopiracy.

One hurdle to cooperation in this area is the diversity of national legislation. For that reason, future meetings of intellectual property officials from the Amazon nations will focus on the "harmonisation of laws," Arteaga announced.