BOLIVIA The biopiracy threat

Martín Garat. Aug 29, 2007

Valuable resources lack protection.

Bolivia's flora and fauna is some of the most diverse in the world. The landlocked Andean country is home to a wide variety of climate zones and the plants and herbs that grow in the highlands, valleys and jungle comprise a genetic wealth that is little exploited by Bolivian industry, and often falls into the hands of biopiracy.

"Foreign scientists visit our indigenous communities in an effort to gain their ancestral learnings on plants and herbs. They take seeds and samples with them to test their uses and effects. They later sell medicines and other products made from stolen species, or they simple sell them in their natural state" said Roger Carvajal, a doctor with a Ph.D in biological sciences, and a former official in the country's Development Planning Ministry.

One of the most frequent cases of biopiracy is that of quinua, an Andean cereal that has become fashionable in European cooking because of its high nutritional value.

In 1994, quinua was patented in the United States by two researchers in the University of Colorado, who later admitted that they had only discovered a method to produce hybrids of the quinua-based cereal. After a long court battle, the patent was revoked four years later.

Bio-law difficult to enforce
According to Carvajal, a major problem is that these "biothefts". are difficult to detect. "It's a broad practice, above all when it's time to talk about specific products. It's better to speak of species, and companies that sell products without sharing the profits with the indigenous communities that have cared for these plants for thousands of years".

Foreign companies eye Bolivian wood, medicinal plants and fruits.
These genetic resources are extremely difficult to protect on the vast Bolivian territory and customs agents are scarce along the borders, and it is difficult to find small seeds hidden in luggage.

So, some indigenous communities are taking precautions. "The indigenous peoples have denounced the presence of foreigners who take plants with them. Some communities have even come to control the entries and exits on their lands" Carvajal said.

Another problem is that it is not always possible to determine the exact origin of a stolen species. The species found in the Bolivian Amazon are similar to those found in the jungles of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

"South American countries need to form a common law that protects the whole region. If there's control only in some countries, the same plants can be stolen from where there is less protection" Carvajal said.

In Manaus, the capital of Brazil's Amazonas state, visitors to the region face regular revisions. Foreign scientists are frequently detained for trying to smuggle seeds or plants from the region in their luggage. In Bolivia the situation is different: there has not been one case of an arrest for biopiracy.

"Either there haven't been many cases in our country, or the robberies that have taken place haven't been identified" said Iván Zambrana, who works for the biodiversity department in the Rural Development, Agriculture and Environment Ministry.

In 1993, Bolivia ratified an international biodiversity convention that established norms for the legal access to biodiversity found in the country. But "no one has the responsibility of assuring that these norms are enforced. There are plans to train customs agents, but not much is known now about the flow of our genetic resources. The environment never received the attention it deserves" Zambrana said.

Both Zambrana and Carvajal agree that a study of the country's flora must be done in order to know what species exist and what their properties are. The study's results, they say, should include an official registry of the country's biodiversity. A Biodiversity Institute has already begun to be prepared, but it will be another two years before the results are published.