They are derisively called pirates of the new age. But unlike their counterparts of old who lay in wait to seize the goods from their victims, they go directly to the source -- plundering and looting the resources of a poor nation. They are the bio-pirates.
In the Philippines, piracy of its vast biological diversity has been going on unabated for several years. Reports of large numbers of flora and fauna being smuggled out of the country have continuously appeared in publications nationwide.
For instance, a local news agency, the Philippine News and Features, reported the collection of local plant materials by foreigners in the Cordillera region last year.
According to PNF, Dr. Charles Cheng, a leading researcher and director of the Baguio Filipino-Chinese General Hospital, said that as much as 300 plant samples were collected from Mt. Pulog by unidentified Japanese.
The second highest peak in the country spanning the three provinces of Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya in northern Luzon, Mt. Pulog was the same subject of interest when American researchers discovered mountain dew (Taxus sumatran) in 1995. The plant is now being studied for its anti-cancer potentials.
Palawan, described as the country's last frontier, has not been spared by the biopirates. Home to thousands of plant species and hundreds of fauna, it has become the favorite hunting ground for Japanese, Korean and American researchers.
Similarly, massive collection of biological diversity including marine life were reported in Siquijor Island, Batanes, Pangasinan, Samar, Leyte, Mt. Baco in Mindoro; Mt. Kitanglad in Bukidnon and Mindanao.
A more controversial biopiracy case involved the interest of a large US pharmaceutical firm in gathering human genes from Aetas, a tribal community reportedly resistant to malaria and leprosy.
A letter from scientists of the Department of Human Genetics of Roche Molecular Systems in Alameda, California dated May 23, 1994 and addressed to Philip Camara of the St. Augustine Sambali Fund Inc. in Zambales asked for his assistance in the research involving Aetas of Pinatubo as well as some other Aeta tribes in the Philippines.
The study, according to the letter, was for "medical purposes only that may someday help to detect and prevent various autoimmune or other diseases."
It involved a painless procedure called "buccal swab," where genes are to be gathered by the brushing of the inner cheek to be kept in a small vial.
However, Camara rejected the proposal because of the "ethical implications and the rights of minority peoples." Camara said it was not clear who was in control of the project, who was accountable for the findings and who would benefit from the study.
Roche reportedly tried to get into the Philippines in 1993 by assigning its researchers on the Aloha Medical Mission as assistant medical volunteers. The plan was later aborted when AMM cancelled the visit to the country.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
About 50 to 70 percent of the world's natural biodiversity is found in only 7 percent of the earth's surface. Most of these are found in the tropical and sub-tropical countries in the world.
Often referred to as the South, these countries yielded valuable contributions to the North as the developed world is known.
Southeast Asia forests alone, which is located in the tropical zone, have one of the richest varieties of tropical flora. Of the total 250,000 species of flowering plants worldwide, at least 150,000 are located in the tropics. Of that number 35,000 can be found in Southeast Asia and not less than 6,000 species are said to have medicinal properties.
For the pharmaceutical industry, the South has ceased to be a mere source for bioprospecting activities -- the exploration, collection, research on biological diversity for commercially viable products.
Over the years, a growing recognition that the knowledge of indigenous peoples can be tapped for the development of drugs has been acknowledged.
The US National Cancer Institute admitted that the success rate in finding active compounds could have been doubled had the medicinal folk knowledge been the only information used to target species collection.
But this led to another form of piracy -- those of Intellectual Property Rights.
Shaman Pharmaceuticals for example, has invited traditional healers and ethnobotanists (those who study the direct relationship between human beings and plant resources) to advise them on the pharmacological merits of at least 145 plants.
According to Rural Advacement Foundation International (RAFI), an non-government organization based in Canada, almost 1,000 indigenous medical uses are under investigation involving the 145 species.
Despite Shaman's promise to recognize and compensate the use of indigenous knowledge, RAFI said, barely 6 percent or 58 of the indigenous uses studied are ascribed to a named community. Most of the time, RAFI said, the community is only identified as "Amerindian" or "Creole".
In almost 20 percent of the indigenous knowledge studied, Shaman had named the origin of technology merely as "multiple sources" or "elsewhere." This makes it particularly difficult for the indigenous community to claim "equitable sharing" in case a drug becomes commercially viable, RAFI said.
When U.S. patent 5,211,944 issued to Shaman in May, 1993, RAFI said, no indigenous community was compensated since Shaman said the agent isolated from Calophyllum plant species can be chemically synthesized and therefore do not need biomaterials from the source community.
The patented product produces a powerful antiviral agent that can be used in making proanthocyanidin polymers which in turn, can be used to combat influenza, herpes and some respiratory ailments.
Shaman Pharmaceuticals is presently collaborating with the National Museum of the Philippines on bioprospecting. To date, it has received at least two patents on drugs in clinical trials for anti-fungal and anti-viral ailments.
ROLE OF NGOs
Because of the very nature of their work -- dealing closely with local communities -- NGOs, particularly those involved in biodiversity conservation activities play a very important part in bioprospecting activities.
Knowledgeable of the local language, culture and norms, NGOs are attractive partners for industries and research institutions.
Some NGOs, such as the Conservation International, even initiated the partnership or brokered partnerships between communities and Bristol Myers Squibb in Suriname.
But while there are a number of NGOs actively participating in varying degrees of bioprospecting activities in Latin America, Elenita Dano of South East Asia Regional Institute for Community Education noted a lack of active involvement of NGOs on bioprospecting in Southeast Asia.
Dano, who spoke during the Regional Workshop on Sustainable Utilization of Genetic Resources in Southeast Asia and the Pacific held in Davao City last July, 1997, attributed the low participation of NGOs in the bioprospecting arena to the general practise of industries to deal directly with local communities or with research institutions and the low level of NGO awareness in bioprospecting.
"An overwhelming majority of the NGOs in the region have very low knowledge on the issues and some do not even have ideas on what bioprospecting is," she said.
She said lack of awareness makes NGOs vulnerable to exploitation. In the Philippines, she said, some NGOs unconsciously or unknowingly became partners in bioprospecting of foreign research institutions.
She cited the case of one NGO working in the coastal areas in Palawan and Siquijor which assisted the Scripps Institute of Oceanology in collecting sea squirts in 1992.
Dano said one particular species collected by the team in the waters of Siquijor is now being studied as an antidote for colon cancer.
"The challenge now for the NGO community is how to bridge this gap (on low awareness). An even bigger challenge for all NGOs is how to raise the level of awareness of local communities on the issues and how to build their capacities to deal with these issues," she stressed.
Dano cited four significant roles NGOs play in bioprospecting. These are:
(1) Bioprospectors. NGOs directly involved in the collection and preparation of biological specimens and supplying these resources to principal/partners.
Some also provide assistance in the form of enthnobotanical information, access to communities, facilitator, interpreter, etc. In return, the NGOs receive compensation, monetary or otherwise, as part of the agreement.
An example of this is the Carnivore Presentation Trust which supplied Glaxo Pharmaceuticals with more than a 100 plant samples collected from the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1994 for $64 each.
(2) Brokers or Advisers. NGOs provide information and legal as well as technical advice to the prospectors and facilitate access to the target areas. They also help design mutually acceptable bioprospecting agreements that include partnership and benefit-sharing mechanisms.
Conservation International played both broker and collector for partners that include the National Institute of Health and USAID in Suriname. It provided information and helped design the benefit-sharing mechanisms.
In return, the organization received about $2.7 million which was used in part for the implementation of biodiversity conservation projects in the South.
(3) Bio-diversity Experts. Many NGOs prefer to directly take part in the formulation of policies and negotiations at the national and international levels to ensure the interest of local communities and civil society. The Third World Network and SEARICE belong to this group.
(4) Educators. NGOs that concentrate their efforts in raising the awareness of communities and other civil society organizations on the conservation and sustainable utilization of biodiversity and in bioprospecting activities.
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JOURNAL Group reporter Jenny S. Macrohon won the third prize in the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Investigative Journalism for this series on Biopirates.