Pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars from top-selling drugs. But, the communities that harbor the traditional knowledge and genetic resources from which these drugs are made, reap few benefits. The World Intellectual Property Organization, which oversees patents, trademarks and copyrights, has been working for the past five years to reach an agreement that would help spread the wealth from products stemming from traditional resources. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.
The Amazon jungle, the forests in Africa and Asia contain many hidden treasures. Their plants, trees, and herbs provide the basis for most of the world's disease-fighting drugs and many of its cosmetic and beautifying remedies. For example, penicillin has been saving millions of peoples' lives for decades. The anti-cancer drug Taxol and the anti-malaria drug extracted from the Chinese herbal plant, Artemisin offer hope to many.
"There is quite a substantial and well documented appropriation of traditional knowledge, especially in the area of traditional medicine-what is generally called bio-prospecting," explains Usman Sarki, a minister in the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to Geneva. He says people go into the African forests in search of medicinal plants, which are then taken out of the continent and brought to Western and other countries.
"And, laboratories develop them and extract active ingredients and make useful drugs out of them without actually disclosing where this came from, without actually plowing back benefits into the community where they obtained these medicinal plants," he explained.
Sarki says developing countries are trying to curb this illegal appropriation of traditional knowledge.
"So we African countries, supported by many other developing countries and indigenous communities are saying that we need new rights…so that they can now have a legal protection of their traditional knowledge," he said.
"With traditional knowledge, I think it is very appropriate that we find means of recognizing the contribution to humanity of traditional knowledge systems," added Francis Gurry, deputy director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Gurry, says traditional culture, folklore and medicines have enriched humanity. But, finding an international solution to protecting traditional knowledge is very complex.
"It is not like the Western tradition of someone sitting up in the bath and saying 'Eureka I've discovered it.' There is a collective creativity," Gurry said. "And, for that reason, it is very difficult to know at what point the knowledge came into existence."
The intellectual property rights system awards patents and copyrights to recognized holders of inventions, of books and recordings. This same system is difficult to apply to traditional knowledge because the legal holder of the right usually cannot be identified. It might be a tribe or another traditional community.
Developing nations want a legally binding international treaty to protect traditional knowledge. Industrialized countries oppose this. Johnson Ole Kaunga is a Masai from Kenya. He is part of a group called IMPACT that represents herder's rights.
He says industrialized governments benefit from exploiting genetic resources. So, it would be against their interests to enact an international binding instrument. He says Masai has become a worldwide brand name. While others profit from their heritage, he says the Masai do not.
"The Masai want to share their heritage with others. So, the most important thing is it should not be a negative exploitation," he explained. "It should be a shared resource for all."
Kaunga says he has little faith in national legislation because governments often manipulate their laws against their own people.
"So, to me, an international binding legal agreement is very necessary and important so that where governments end up abusing or forcing their own communities to accept their national legislation or to do it forcefully, they can now have another alternative for recourse, " he said.
The World Intellectual Property Organization says it is in the interest of those that use traditional knowledge to eventually strike a deal. It says pharmaceutical companies invest billions of dollars in research. They do not want to find themselves in a situation of legal uncertainty when they have a successful result. This alone, it says, is reason enough for them to reach an accord that will provide them with the legal framework they need and, at the same time, will recompense the holders of traditional knowledge.