Early-2003: Cerylid Pty Ltd starts tests on compounds extracted from the bark of a small shrub which grows in the tropical rainforest of Sarawak. With testing underway at the US National Cancer Institute, the company hopes to discover new cures that could benefit millions of people worldwide.
Mid-2003: Queensland premier Peter Beattie announces his government is to seek royalty payments for any pharmaceuticals developed from living materials collected
by bioprospectors on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Lured by the promise of fantastic profits and benefit to humanity, bioprospectors are now searching nature worldwide for new cures. But just as nature's medicine
chest is being prised open, controversy over the ownership of natural materials of medical interest and over compensation to Indigenous people who might have
made use of nature's medicines threatens to slam it shut. The Queensland premier's statement highlights the fact that the issue has entered the mainstream.
Bioprospcting or biopiracy?
The potential for developing pharmaceuticals and industrial materials from samples found in nature in not new. Penicillin, one of the world's most widely
used drugs, was based on material found in an African fungus. Tea tree oil, from Australia's Malaleuca alternifolia, is marketed worldwide for its antiseptic properties. So too is Eucalyptus oil.
Despite bioprospecting's evident benefit to human kind, critics - including an increasingly powerful Indigenous lobby - label it biopiracy. They say that
Indigenous people do not receive sufficient recompense for sharing their traditional pharmaceutical knowledge with the drug companies. They allege that companies stand
to reap millions, even billions of dollars from the small number of plant and animal extracts that prove suitable for the production of new pharmaceuticals.
The sensitivity of the issue is exemplified by John Lennis, Aboriginal education officer with Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. John, who is of mixed Aboriginal/
European ancestry, refuses to disclose the traditional medical uses of native plants. He says that Indigenous Australians have received little benefit from
sharing their knowledge. John's attitude, however, may be too little too late as much has already been published on the Aboriginal use of plants for medical
purposes. Despite this, there must be so much more to learn but that depends on Aboriginal willingness to share their knowledge.
In part, Aboriginal reluctance to share traditional knowledge is a reaction to the wider injustices they have been subject to and to their desire to retain
cultural identity. Critics, however, say moves to lock up useful knowledge denies it to those who are suffering.
Premier Beattie's June statement promises to reap a financial return to the state for natural material developed into pharmaceutical products. This is good as far
as it goes, however there is also sound moral, social justice and business arguments for financial returns directly to Indigenous people who share traditional knowledge.
The most commonly favoured form of recompense is the payment by drug companies of royalties on pharmaceuticals developed from natural extracts found with the help of traditional knowledge. It could be argued that there should also be an upfront payment to traditional landholders for bioprospecting rights. Research organisations and pharmaceutical corporations might look upon payments to traditional knowledge holders as a business arrangement in much the same way that business pays for any raw material.
There is also an equally valid moral argument that says that by refusing to share, custodians of Indigenous knowledge deny the healing power of natural substances
to the wider public and, in doing so, perpetuate suffering.
The solution to this issue will have to be legislative. Preferably, it would be federal legislation covering bioprospecting and the payment of royalties. The
Queensland government's proposal is an appropriate first step.
Choosing not to share their knowledge leaves Indigenous communities open to criticism that their secrecy is, in effect, a form of "privatization"
of knowledge as ethnic or cultural property. People who support this kind of privatisation but oppose privatisation in other areas of the economy leave themselves open to
accusations of double standards.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.