Ownership of forest reproductive material: bioprospecting and biopiracy

The Convention on Biological Diversity and subsequent initiatives highlight the importance of understanding ownership of biodiversity. It raises many questions. Who actually owns - that is - has property rights to the material itself (e.g. the seeds)? Who owns the diversity that its genes produce? Who owns the local, indigenous or traditional knowledge (IK or TK) about the botany and local uses of species (ethnobotany)? Or who owns the various varieties that have been developed, sometimes incidentally, as local people have selected and replanted trees and crops? Is it a common heritage for all peoples? Or is it the property of nations who may own the forest; the companies who discovered a particular chemical; the local communities who have lived in and made use of the forest for centuries; or of the private individuals who own the land and the trees on it?

From the beginning of our efforts to improve trees, forest reproductive material has been important as herbarium material in exploratory taxonomic studies, and - usually as seeds - has been essential for regenerating trees for further study or planting. This has often meant exploration, selection and collection of material in countries outside those where the studies, experiments or plantations take place. Such has been the case for centuries with agricultural material and crops. Until recently, limited attention has been given to the issues of ownership in forestry, and who should have access to and benefit from the results of study and development carried out by outsiders. For this reason, elaboration of material transfer agreements is considered important, as they specify the terms and conditions for access and sharing of benefits.

The term bioprospecting is relatively new and describes the search for economically valuable genetic and biochemical natural resources. It could include all the "prospecting" or exploratory work done in the past for forestry. However it is now applied, in a more limited context, to the search for specific traits in genes (such as pest or disease resistance) or chemicals from which new drugs can be developed (referred to as phytopharmaceuticals or phytomedicines). Such prospecting is usually carried out by commercial firms, who need to make profits - which can be substantial. The question of who should have a share in those profits then becomes much more important. If this is not equitably shared, then the material and benefits are effectively pirated, a situation now popularly described as biopiracy. Some would argue that biopiracy has been happening since the beginning of plant exploration. It has been pointed out that in the fields of agriculture, including forestry, we deal mainly at the level of intra-specific variation of a number of actually or potentially useful species, in the case of bioprospecting in the much publicised field of medicinal compounds, the focus is on species level variation.

Some examples of Material Transfer Agreements used in forestry are availablehere.
last updated:  Wednesday, April 18, 2007