Brazil grapples with jungle piracy dilemma

AUTHOR: Terry Wade PUBLICATION: Reuters Features DATE: 15 March 2006

BIO-IPR docserver -

Reuters - 15 March 2006 By Terry Wade

SAO PAULO, Brazil, March 15 (Reuters) - In 1999, a young Brazilian
botanist named Eliana Rodrigues dug through forests in an ambitious
project with Krao Indians to collect and identify 400 tropical plants
and berries they use as medicine.

Proud of being socially conscious, she and her research partner, Dr
Elisandro Carlini, signed agreements with three villages to share
royalties from all commercial products and patents developed from the

To help the tribal economy near the Amazon rainforest, they agreed to
pay the Indians to cultivate some medicinal plants.

The hope was to identify more of Brazil's vast but largely unknown
biodiversity, and find cheap treatments for dozens of ills afflicting
the world. But an employee at the federal Indian affairs agency accused
them of biological piracy and got a court injunction halting their project.

Seven years later, they are still stuck in legal limbo, waiting for
Brazil's government to pass laws giving scientists access to plants on
Indian reservations and in national forests, and defining how
researchers should share any profits with poor local communities.

"This is the biggest imbroglio scientists are facing in Brazil," Carlini
told Reuters.

People who oppose research on Indian lands, many of them in the
government, worry scientists will hand over findings to foreign
pharmaceutical companies, allowing them to make huge profits from unique
local cultures in the Amazon. Indians, meanwhile, resent the
paternalistic nature of the state that obstructs their wishes to
collaborate with researchers.

Stopping biopiracy -- which happens when scientists or companies fail to
pay local groups or governments in exchange for their plants or
knowledge -- will be on the agenda at a United Nations conference on
biodiversity in Curitiba, Brazil from March 20-31.

Biopiracy must stop, most people agree. But sharing benefits is
complicated. Anthropologists worry cash payments could erode Indian
cultures. Economists wonder if payments should be made to a municipal,
state or federal authority.

Scientists are anxious for change. Brazil has an estimated 60,000 plant
species, but less than half are defined in textbooks. Discoveries could
generate business.


Even when companies risk the uncertain legal environment and cobble
together benefit-sharing plans with poor communities, they are often
caught in ethical dilemmas.

Experiments by companies that consider themselves socially or
environmentally aware have had mixed results.

Natura Cosmeticos SA, a company that makes beauty products based on
tropical plants, relies on rainforest communities to help it develop new
extracts and pays them for their help.

"Working with locals saves us light years of research," said Eliane
Anjos, the company's environmental affairs director. "But paying locals
isn't easy. It can destroy local cultures and cause social and economic

In one community of river dwellers in the Amazon that provides Natura
with plant materials, the company wanted to install a simple sewage
system to fight childhood illnesses.

Instead, it found itself quashing a demand for a pickup truck by
explaining to residents that there were few roads to drive on in the
rain-soaked region. TV satellite dishes were also a popular request.

In that same village, one resident took nearly all of the money Natura
had put into a community trust fund, abandoned his wife and moved to the
modern state capital with another woman.

Experts also disagree on how to define who should receive benefits, how
much they should receive and for how long.


Brazil has signed international agreements to protect biodiversity and
has turned parts of those agreements into domestic law, but like other
countries rich in biological wonders, such as many in Africa, it has yet
to decide how to deal with biopiracy. Poor governments are often too
weak to monitor and enforce biodiversity laws.

As local laws lag, patents that raise biopiracy issues are starting to
be dealt with by the World Trade Organization and the U.N. World
Intellectual Property Organization.

Many Brazilians think it is strange that Japanese companies have tried
patenting common names for two edible Amazonian fruits, Cupuacu and
Acai, to sell abroad.

"Biopiracy is happening and companies who want to do research don't know
what the rules of the game are. The market is obscure," said Angela
Kong, a partner at the Pinheiro Neto law firm in Sao Paulo.

For a developing country like Brazil, murky laws are holding back a type
of economic development that is far less damaging to the Amazon than
activities like logging, poaching and mining.

"Brazil's unique competitive advantage is its biodiversity. It has 22
percent of the world's plant species, but federal laws aren't prepared
to deal with this," said Antonio Paes de Carvalho, president of
Extracta, a small Brazilian company that isolates molecules to discover
drug therapies.

(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg)



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