From New Scientist, May 22, 2004

INDIGENOUS people are often at the mercy of bio-pirates, who steal their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants. That was the considered view of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, which met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, recently .

The unwritten knowledge that indigenous people pass down the generations is rarely recognised by patent regulators. A noteworthy proposal from the UN convention was that confidential databases of traditional knowledge should be set up. The UN called on governments to insist that companies show they have gained prior informed consent from indigenous communities before exploiting plants or crops for commercial gain. I asked Hilary Benn, the secretary for international development, what the UK's policy is on helping such people to get their due reward.

Benn replied that the government helped to negotiate a satisfactory mandate for an international regime on access and benefit sharing. This covers traditional knowledge and recognises the need for a balance between facilitating access to genetic resources and sharing benefits. The government is now following up a number of recommendations from the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights--an independent body set up by the Department for International Development (DFID) in 2001--to ensure indigenous people are rewarded for their role in husbanding biodiversity and identifying the medicinal, nutritional and other properties of many species.

Byline: Tam Dalyell