Monday, December 24, 2007

Biopirates (Arrr!)

We've previously discussed some of the new species that Marc van Roosmalen has catalogued in the Amazonian rainforest (the dwarf manatee, the giant peccary), but earlier this year the Dutch scientist was convicted of violating Brazilian laws against biopiracy. Van Roosmalen was sentenced to almost 16-years imprisonment, and he was jailed in Manaus until this August when his lawyers managed to have him freed while awaiting the ruling on his appeal.

What is biopiracy?

Biopiracy is the appropriation of biological materials (e.g. plants and seeds) and biological information (e.g. chemicals and genes extracted from plants), normally from developing nations with great biodiversity, without paying compensation to local people.

In 1993, a Convention on Biological Diversity was signed by 183 nations. One of the objectives of the treaty is to allow developing nations to reap more of the rewards stemming from the use of their biological resources, and it recognizes that countries' have the right to regulate access to the biological resources contained within their borders. The United States was a signatory to this treaty, but it has not been ratified by the Senate.

Swashbuckling tales of biopirates

It makes sense that Brazil has adopted serious anti-biopiracy initiatives given that it was a victim of what is perhaps the most notorious example of historic biopiracy. In the 19th century, the commercialization of rubber -- extracted from trees which grew only in the Amazon rainforest -- was big business, and rubber barons in cities such as Manaus and Iquitos amassed considerable fortunes (just ask our old friend, Fitzcarraldo). Then, in 1876, British biopirate, Sir Henry Alexander Wickham, managed to smuggle around 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil to crown colonies in Southeast Asia. Rubber tree plantations were founded in Malaya and Ceylon which were able to outproduce the Amazon region, where traditional methods were used to extract rubber from trees in remote area of the jungle, thus signalling the end of the South American rubber boom.

Today's biopiracy usually takes a more subtle form. Researchers from pharmaceutical companies may extract chemicals from plants found in developing nations (often plants which had long been known for their medicinal properties among indigenous peoples). The pharmaceutical company then patents the chemical and commercializes it without paying any sort of compensation to the local people or the country where the plants grow. The wikipedia entry on biopiracy lists some other famous cases and includes some links. I also found a site by the Coalition Against Biopiracy which bestows the Captain Hook Award to particularly nasty biopirates, and another site highlights biopiracy concerns in the Amazon.

In the 1970's Squibb used venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper in order to develop the drug captopril which is used to treat hypertension. And more recently some Indian tribes in Brazil have complained that blood samples were taken from tribe members under ethically-questionable circumstances and have subsequently been used in international genetic research.

Brazilian anti-biopiracy laws

In the last few years Brazil has passed legislation to combat these practices. These measures have generally been supported by the Brazilian people, but scientists complain that the new laws are vague and create bureaucratic obstacles which stifle scientific research.

In order to receive authorization to conduct field research in Brazil, scientists must obtain approval from up to five government agencies, and -- although the law provides that agencies must respond within 90 days of the request -- in practice, responses are often issued much later as the agencies lack the resources, staff and know-how to process scientists' applications. Thus many scientists have decided to go ahead with their work in the meantime, assuming that they will eventually receive government authorization, but the Van Roosmalen case has given them pause.

Enio Candotti, who has serve as the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, estimates that over half of research conducted in Brazil is thus technically illegal. Candotti, a physicist, supports protecting the environment and indigenous knowledge, but he is against the new legislation stating that "research needs to be stimulated, not criminalized."

Renata Furtado, an official at the National Defense Council, an agency that has been involved in approving research requests in recent years, recognizes that there are some problems with the system but she places most of the blame with scientists whom she says refuse to compromise, resist supervision and insist on working in sensitive border areas. "We are trying to make the process more democratic," she says, "more open to dialogue, by inviting in all interested parties, including the military and indigenous groups, and when that happens, naturally you have people for and against." Boy, doesn't that sound like the definition of a bureaucratic nightmare?! And as for scientists resisting "supervision" and refusing to "compromise" can you blame them for wanting to conduct their research independent from government interference?

The case against van Roosmalen

So what exactly has van Roosmalen done to run afoul of the law in Brazil? He was once detained during a boat trip for transporting monkeys without a license, and he had monkey feces sent out of the country for laboratory analysis. Furthermore, in order to raise money for his work, van Roosmalen made an offer through his website to name the new species he might discover in honor of international financiers (remember how the trichechus bernhardi and callecibus bernhardi were named after Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands?): Brazilian authorities assert that this too is illegal, even if there is a longstanding historical precedent for recognizing patrons in this maner (e.g when Galileo discovered four moons of Jupiter, he named them "Medicean Stars" in honor of the Medici family).

In July of this year, at a biologists' conference in Mexico, 287 scientists from 30 countries signed a petition asserting that the jailing of van Roosmalen was "indicative of a trend of government repression of scientists in Brazil." In addition to deterring scientific research, scientists claim that these measures and the targeting of van Roosmalen demonstrate xenophobic prejudice.

Scientists who have worked with van Roosmalen admit that he can be stubborn and ill-tempered and that he does not respond well to authority. He often clashed with superiors at the state-funded National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus with which he was affiliated. Eventually he and the Institue parted ways in part because of his colleagues' jealousy after Time Magazine named him a "Hero of the Planet" in 2000. Despite his flaws, a former schoolmate of his, Wim Veen, sums up the case this way: "if there is anyone in Brazil who is defending the Amazon, it is Marc, which makes it particularly cynical to see him being made the victim of a legislation meant not for him but those who want to extract the riches of the tropical rainforest for their own material benefit."

Van Roosmalen has worked hard to catalogue new species in the Amazon and to publicise threats to their habitats. I think that regardless of whether one might consider some of his actions censurable, surely we can agree that 16 years in prison is a draconian punishment.

Biopirate flag taken from Photo of Marc van Roosmalen (c) Eraldo Peres/AP


nola32 said...

do you think those seeds i took from holland count as biopiracy?

for the record- that was totally a joke. if i get raided i'm telling them you did it, meeg.

Meeg said...

We're these tulip bulbs?