Biopiracy bill would protect environment and honour indigenous knowledge

The European parliament is to vote on a bill that will make it harder for pharmaceutical companies to exploit the traditional knowledge of indigenous people

The European parliament will vote in early September on a ‘biopiracy’ bill that would make it harder for pharmaceutical giants and other companies to exploit indigenous people’s traditional knowledge without offering fair compensation.

The draft bill, approved on 4 July by the parliament’s environmental committee, requires companies to obtain informed consent from local peoples, and agree benefit-sharing deals before commercialising or patenting genetic resources derived from natural medicines and other traditional practices.

This would bring the European Union in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in Rio in 1992, and make its member nations among the first developed countries to have laws protecting indigenous people’s rights to their traditional knowledge.

The bill would benefit both native communities and biodiversity. Formal profit-sharing deals would give developing countries a vested interest in preserving natural resources, said François Meienberg, campaign director for the Berne Declaration, a Swiss NGO that is tracking the bill.

“There’s much less motivation for a lot of developing countries to invest in conservation and sustainable use if they see the whole benefit going to foreign companies,” he said.

Under pressure from activists, the parliamentary panel also approved an amendment broadening the bill’s scope to include materials already held in seed banks and genetic depositories, rather than just new discoveries.

This is important, as European pharmaceutical and agricultural giants have stockpiled vast troves of genetic material, which now drive most of their research activity, Meienberg says.

However, the amendment will likely spark a fierce lobbying effort when Europe’s parliamentarians return from their summer recess. Lawmakers are expected to come under intense pressure to walk back the committee’s changes, or even to reject the bill altogether, said Johanna von Braun, a policy advisor with Natural Justice, an NGO that works on biodiversity issues. “The stakes remain high, the real lobbying is only beginning,” she said.

For now, activists and progressive MEPs are quietly celebrating, and working behind the scenes to persuade lawmakers to pass the biopiracy bill without striking down the committee’s amendment. “If not, [Europe] will lose its leadership in the protection of biodiversity,” Green MEP Sandrine Bélier told reporters.