Looking to nature for inspiration, drug research, genetically modified crops or other products is nothing new — research groups and major corporations do it all the time. But discoveries based on traditional Indigenous knowledge or the wealth of biodiversity in developing countries can end up being exported and patented without proper credit or compensation, in what's as biopiracy.
The practice is rooted in history. Colonizers like Spain, the United Kingdom and other global empires frequently took and profited from the natural resources of the regions they occupied, trading in products like coffee, cotton, tea, pepper and rubber.
Today, richer states often exploit the natural resources of poorer nations for medical, agricultural or industrial purposes. Though some protections have been in place for decades — including a World Trade Organization agreement that covers intellectual property rights for varieties of plants and animals — such protections aren't always effective. Such was in the case in the decade-long fight against a patent granted to a US multinational on an antifungal product derived from the neem tree, the use of which has long been a traditional part of Indian medicinal knowledge.
Another example is when American cosmetics firm Mary Kay tried to patent an ingredient from the Kakadu plum — a native Australian fruit which can sell for up to 40 Australian dollars ($27, €26) per kilogram — in its skincare line. The move would have shut out Indigenous producers from the Australian market, people who have long benefited from the plum's medicinal qualities.
In the case of French Guiana,French researchers, based on interviews with Indigenous groups in 2005, identified — and patented — a component in Quassia amara, a traditional medicinal plant with anti-malarial properties. Though the IRD research group eventually agreed to share any potential scientific and economic benefits, it still retains the patent granted by the European Patent Agency in 2015, despite an appeal.
"This patent is a flagrant case of biopiracy. At no time were the six Indigenous communities of French Guiana consulted," said Michele Rivasi, a French member of the European Parliament with the Greens/European Free Alliance. "This decision jeopardizes the use of traditional remedies, as the IRD can prohibit the use of these remedies by the communities that discovered them."