The new piracy: how the West 'steals' Africa's plants: Swiss and British firms are accused of using the scientific properties of plants from the develooping world to make huge profits while giving nothing to the people there.
By Anthony Barnett.
The Observer, London (UK), Aug 27, 2006. p. 9
The Busy Lizzie is one of the most popular plants among British gardeners, providing instant colour to even the most challenging flower beds. Yet this humble plant now finds itself caught up in an international row over patents, human rights and the exploitation of poor communities in the developing world.
The launch of a new strain of 'trailing' Busy Lizzie by the multinational biotech giant Syngenta is, say campaigners, a classic example of what they have dubbed 'biopiracy'. This term is being increasingly used by environmental groups to describe a new form of 'colonial pillaging' where Western corporations reap large profits by taking out patents on indigenous materials from developing countries and turning them into products such as medicines and cosmetics which can be extremely valuable in western markets. In very few cases are any of the financial benefits shared with the country of origin.
An analysis by The Observer of patents issued by the British authorities reveal they have granted several companies patents for at least seven products that orginated from naturally occurring African plants or organisms.
The dispute over the Busy Lizzie revolves around the drive to create the perfect hanging basket display, a demand which feeds a lucrative market for the horticultural industry. Despite its massive popularity the Busy Lizzie - or Impatiens walleriana - has always had one downside: it is too upright.
For years botanists had been hunting for a way to make Busy Lizzies trail downwards. Researchers believed that if they could find this magic extra, the plant would be ideal for hanging baskets and a botanical gold mine would be theirs for the taking.
With great fanfare in April last year Syngenta launched the Spellbound Busy Lizzie. The company claimed that 'after many years of research' it had produced a Busy Lizzie that 'can achieve, at maturity, trails of 70cm [about 28 ins with] masses of large flowers throughout the summer until the first frost'.
The Spellbound went on sale at garden centres across North America and Europe for pounds 2 a plant and Syngenta promoted it through retailers such as
B&Q and Wyevale Garden Centres with its own mascot: Lizzie the Spellbound Fairy. It was a great commercial success and more varieties have been launched.
But behind the marketing glitz and talk of magical creatures, an analysis of the British patent taken out by Syngenta for its new floral 'invention' reveals that Spellbound's magical secret comes from a rare African plant, the Impatiens usambarensis . This grows in the unique ecological habitat of the Usambara mountain range in Tanzania, just south of Mount Kilimanjaro. In its patent Syngenta describes this plant as having 'no commercial significance'.
Syngenta's botanists discovered that by crossing the two plants, the Busy Lizzie displayed the much sought after 'trailing growth habits'. Despite admitting that such hybrids happened naturally in Tanzania, Syngenta claimed the new plant was its 'invention' and the British authorities granted the company a patent on 6 February 2004.
The patent reveals that Syngenta obtained the seeds of the African plant from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh that had cultivated them 'from a wild collection from Tanzania'. A botanical gardens spokeswoman said it had received the seeds in 1982 from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. They had been deposited there in 1976 by Christopher Grey-Wilson, a former president of the Alpine Garden Society.
'This appears to be a classic case of biopiracy,' says Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner from ActionAid. 'This is the silent plunder of natural resources from developing countries. Here we have a large multinational taking out a patent on a plant that grows naturally in a part of Africa and claiming it is their invention . Now the company is making a fortune selling it to the mass market, but the Tanzania communities that live in these regions will not receive one penny.'
In 1994 more than 100 countries, including Britain, signed the International Convention on Biological Diversity that promised to recognise the property rights of developing countries. It did not prohibit the collection of indigenous material but recommended that agreements should be reached to share any commercial benefit that later emerges.
A Syngenta spokesman admitted it had paid nothing for the seeds. He said: 'We got them in 1990 before the international convention came into force. In any case our paperwork shows that when we received the seeds nobody knew exactly which country they came from.'
He rejects the claim of biopiracy. 'Many plants that grow today in a British garden originate from another part of the world and I would not describe that as a type of piracy.'
The US-based Edmonds Institute recently published a report listing more than 30 example of western medical, horticultural and cosmetic products it alleged had been 'pirated' from Africa. An analysis of these patents by The Observer reveals that the Syngenta patent is one of seven granted by the UK authorities that now face accusations of biopiracy.
-- A diabetes drug being developed by a British firm that comes from the Libyan plant Artemisia judaica
--An immuno-suppressant drug being developed by GlaxoSmithKline that comes from a compound found in a termite hill in Gambia.
--A treatment for HIV taken from mycobacteria discovered in mud samples from the Lango district of central Uganda.
--Infection-fighting drugs made from amoebas in Mauritius and Venezuela.
--An anti-diarrhoea vaccine developed from Egyptian microbes.
--A slug barrier made from a Somalian species of myrrh.
Although the development of such drugs is widely welcomed and the companies involved deny the accusations of biopiracy, there is a growing debate about whether profits should be shared between western companies and developing countries.
Beth Burrows, president of the Edmonds Institute, a non-profit body specialising in education about intellectual property rights, said: 'Times have changed. It is no longer acceptable for the great white explorer to trawl across Africa or South America taking what they want for their own commercial benefit. It is no more than a new form of colonial pillaging. As there are internationally recognised rights for oil, so there should be for indigenous plants and knowledge.'
The Brazilian ambassador in London, Jose Mauricio Bustani, described biopiracy as 'a silent disease'. He said: 'It is hardly detectable, it frequently does not leave traces and is an elusive activity perpetrated and often abetted by many well-known multinational companies.
'Unfortunately, it does not attract the same media coverage or public outcry as other environmental problems, such as deforestation and pollutant emissions. But this silent pillage is robbing developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia of the means to finance important sustainable development projects, and is a powerful disincentive for their biodiversity conservation efforts.'
Five years ago The Observer became the first newspaper to reveal how the British drug firm Phytopharm had patented an active ingredient in a plant called hoodia. This is a cactus-like African plant that is used by the San bushmen in South Africa to ward off hunger before hunting trips. Phytopharm has linked with Unilever to market this product, now being developed, as a diet drug. Unilever has agreed to pay up to pounds 21m to Phytopharm, which originally claimed the tribe was extinct
The Observer article prompted an international outcry and lawyers representing the surviving African bushmen managed to forge a benefit-sharing agreement that will see the tribe collect a small share of any profits.
Yet Phytopharm's chief executive, Richard Dixey, strongly rejects the claims of biopiracy and accuses campaigners of scoring an own goal. He said: 'Biopiracy is such an emotive term for a highly complex issue. The fact is that many of these plants grow in more than one place and have been used by many people throughout history. It is almost impossible to discover who 'owns' them.
'In any case it takes a huge effort and a lot of money from recognising a particular property in a plant and developing it into a drug. It can cost between $200m and $500m [pounds 100m-pounds 250m]. If companies could not get the protection of a patent then they simply would not bother. Then what would happen is that the traditional knowledge of these communities would die out with the people or be lost as they become westernised.'
It is not just in the world of medicine and horticulture but also in fashion that the debate over biopiracy rages. In 2004, The Observer revealed how British scientists from Leicester University worked with US firm Genencor to patent a microbe that lives in the caustic lakes of Kenya's Rift Valley.
It was discovered that when jeans are washed with this, the microbe produces an enzyme that 'eats' the indigo dye, giving them a naturally faded look. The company, which denies any wrongdoing, has since made more than $1m in sales to detergent makers and textile firms.