Bilateral deals drawn up between bioprospectors and the
countries or communities of origin of genetic resources are becoming
increasingly common as a mechanism for sharing the benefits of bioprospecting
activities. The 1991 Merck-INBio agreement was the first such deal to be struck.
It is now just one of a rapidly growing number of bioprospecting ventures. Japan
has launched a major biodiversity research programme in Micronesia, the US
National Institutes of Health is screening wild species for compounds active
against HIV and cancer, and both Indonesia and Kenya are establishing inventory
programmes similar to INBio's, and are exploring possible biodiversity
Three main forces have prompted the emergence of such deals.
Firstly, natural products are back in fashion for industry. Genetic and
biochemical resources have long been important raw materials in agriculture and
medicine, but recent technological advances in biotechology have opened up new
frontiers for genetic resource use. The renewed interest in biological compounds
has stimulated a search for sample material from almost the entire range of life
forms, in every corner of the globe. Tropical corals are being screened for
anti-inflammatory potential, soils for antibiotic activity, shark bile for
anti-acne properties, and so on.
The second push has come from the growing acceptance that
genetic resources are not a freely available global commodity and that equity
and ethical issues must be addressed in bioprospecting activities. Over the last
ten years several international agreements and treaties have forced attention to
be paid to these issues. The extent to which these issues have been taken on
board by policymakers is reflected in the fact that part of the Biodiversity
Convention's remit is to establish a policy framework for bioprospecting
activities addressing the issues of ethics and equity.
The third force is the growing recognition of the economic value
of biodiversity, the threat of genetic erosion and the need for conservation
The new bioprospecting deals are seen by their promoters as
'win-win-win' opportunities to address these three issues. Corporations and
research institutions gain from the exploitation of biodiversity's green gold,
while the countries and communities which provide the raw materials and
knowledge supposedly share in the profits and are compensated for the loss of
their genetic heritage. In addition, part of the compensation package is used to
ensure biodiversity conservation in the host country.
There is a clear need for the regulation of bioprospecting
activities given the surge in interest from the commercial sector (see Table
2.1), for environmental reasons as well as equity and ethics In Kenya, nearly
three tonnes of the widespread shrub Maytenus buchanani, source of the
anticancer drug maytansine, was harvested as part of a screening programme
undertaken by the US National Cancer Institute. When additional material was
required four years after the initial harvesting, regeneration had been so poor
that collectors had difficulty in obtaining it.
Bioprospecting initiatives such as the Merck-INBio deal are
gaining popularity among policy makers, scientists and companies, particularly
those in the North. But there is vigorous opposition from some NGOs and from
indigenous communities. Their concerns range from practical considerations about
who should receive the benefits, to the ethics of commodifying