Bio-Piracy: A Pervasive Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security


Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

(This article was published in The Island newspaper: )


Biosphere is a common heritage of the mankind. The free flow of fauna and flora is a natural process. The natural flow of fauna and flora does not take in to account the man-made political boundaries in their natural dispersion.  In the past, this dispersion has served human kind greatly.  Tea and rubber in Sri Lanka can be cited as a good example. These two plants came to Sri Lankan soil from far and dominated the Sri Lankan economy for years. In terms of nature’s systemic flow of fauna and flora around the world, any attempt to have exclusive right or monopoly contradict the the nature. The relationship between the humans and their surrounding is complex and multifaceted. History of human kind is a story of how they made use of their environment, natural and otherwise, for the benefit  and progress. Cultures and Knowledge systems evolved as result of this human endeavor. With the advancement of science, their ability to make use of fauna and flora has enhanced rapidly. This has created serious challenges to the biodiversity, which is a cardinal principle of nature of dynamics. The issue of bio-piracy came to the forefront in this context. The use of modern technology and science goes to the extent of exploiting biodiversity and becomes a manipulated act, bio-piracy. Within this complicated process, traditional and indigenous knowledge get misappropriated and exploited. Using the power of science and technology, combined with political and economic might corporates and other actors commits acts of bio piracy, by monopolizing the use of fauna and flora and exploiting the traditional knowledge marginalizing the local and traditional communities who initially owned the knowledge and who were entitled to biodiversity in their locality.

In this context, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) organized a webinar on the topic “Bio Piracy: Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security”, on Thursday 25th March 2021. Three world renowned Sri Lankan scholars: Prof. Siril Wijesundara, Research Professor (Plant Taxonomy and Conservation) at National Institute of Fundamental Studies and Former Director General at the Department of National Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya; Prof. Veranja Karunarathne, Senior Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya and Former Vice Chancellor of SLINTEC ACADEMY, Homagama; and Prof. Sarath Kotagama, Professor Emeritus, Department of Zoology and Environment Science, University of Colombo, presented and shared their views on the topic at the webinar. Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Peradeniya and the Executive Director of Regional Centre for Strategic Studies moderated the webinar.

Introduction to Bio-Piracy and the formation of Convention on Biological Diversity 

Primary thought of bio-piracy comes into being when knowledge becomes livelihood. Knowledge became a livelihood, built on traditional knowledge of indigenous people. With this came the desire to come up with an international agreement of some sorts and there came into being the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1993. This convention came into existence with the idea that biological material need to be considered a resource highlighted Prof. Sarath Kotagama.

Prof. Sarath Kotagama remarked that the word “Biodiversity” was coined in 1986 and put into use in the 1980s, but the discussion about bio-piracy did not start until the recent past. Any piracy or pirate action of bio items is known as bio-piracy. Bio piracy is the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while by failing to pay fair compensation to the community for which it originates. According to him, the illegal appropriation of life, micro-organisms, plants and animals (including humans) and the traditional knowledge that accompanies it, which then gets commercialized is known as bio-piracy. Doing something “any effort to find biological resources and the related indigenous knowledge for commercial exploitation” is called Bioprospecting. But, until recently, there has been no mention of bio-piracy or bioprospecting even though this had been occurring since the colonial times.

Prof. Kotagama highlighted the fact that biological diversity was a common heritage in the past. It didn’t matter where it originated. But in 1992, after the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the developing countries said traditional knowledge is a sovereign resource that should not be common heritage. By this time, the traditional knowledge and knowledge inherent to indigenous communities was identified as common heritage. Later, in a battle (between the meetings in cities of Washington D.C and Rio De Janeiro) they claimed that the traditional knowledge is not common heritage and it is a sovereign right of the country that owns the bio items and traditional knowledge. According to Prof. Kotagama, even if the ownership was established and the countries secure the sovereign right for bio-items exported from their countries and their traditional knowledge, it was declared that if there is a humanitarian purpose and if it is for the use of humanity, the substance needs to be shared with the rest of the world.

The contest for the sovereign right was more of an effort after the blunder in bio-diplomacy between the United States and Nicaragua. Prof. Kotagama pointed out that when in Nicaragua potato blight occurred and potato started dying, North America had the solution, they had the original gene from the type of potato that Nicaragua was losing. Nicaragua wanted to get the original material the genetic production from the US as a solution to t

he issue at hand. But because of the political differences the US did not agree to send their genetic production to Nicaragua. Biodiversity issue became a matter of concern with this diplomatic occurrence. Prof. Kotagama highlighted that, with such issues amounting to tensed diplomacy between the countries, after the Convention, how resources must be used sustainably and equitably and how it should be conserved became a point of debate.

According to Prof. Kotagama, when biodiversity came into the picture, animal and plants were looked at differently, more of a resource with a commercial value. Coming to grips of the fact that livelihood is built on the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people (of traditional people) by them mattered most. Still the ongoing destruction of resources and nature in the word of development has not stopped and it is another fact that generated discussion on bio-piracy. What is traditional knowledge is important to know. In-situations – found in the ecosystems natural environment and ex-situation in gardens and home gardens, brought and planted in commercial and non-commercial situation, have an end product, a very good genetic production. Both non-commercial uses, taxonomy and conservation and commercial uses – biotechnology, horticulture, pharmaceutical, ultimately can achieve genetic production.  All these together are considered traditional knowledge. This knowledge base was what has been in use and data were collected from the availability of such information. Taking substances from traditional knowledge it will be brought to a commercial platform and look at in benefiting from monetary way. Prof. Kotagama highlighted that giving it a commercial value is the issue. It comes to a point where some countries make money out of somebody else’s knowledge and possessions mercilessly.

Historical background of Bio-Piracy

Prof. Keerawella in his introduction highlighted that Patenting system as a form of blatant colonialism as it monopolizes the ownership of bio items of other countries and vested the power and authority in using the items and knowledge related to them with others other than the indigenous communities who owns the knowledge. He stated that one dimension of early colonialism was gathering information and data of fauna and flora from colonized countries and this has been a practice since many decades ago since the colonial times. When colonialism started, Alexander Johnston collected many books that contained information of fauna and flora and they were collected from Sri Lanka and India and he took them to London. Later Sir James Emerson Tennent (1804-1869) in his book “Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical, and Torpographical with Notices of Natural History, Antiquity and Production” recorded all the information gathered on fauna and flora from Sri Lanka. And there is one Williams Johnes who was not only interested in language but culture, plants and animals in Bengal and India. These are the evidence that shows that the knowledge system was the most important aspect in Colonial domination.

The legitimate governments have motivated individuals to do various bio piracy activities, from gathering information to establishing gardens that will enable information gathering of fauna and flora in colonized countries. According to Prof. Siril Wijesundara, some of the historical events of bio-piracy shaped agriculture, forestry and even the economies of recipient countries. According to him, early explorers played a major role in expeditions where plants were involved. In terms of plant expeditions, even in the distanced past 3500 years ago, plants were taken from places they originated by the Egyptian rulers during their military expeditions. Passage of plants across geographical borders, aided by man became prominent about five centuries ago.

In recorded history, Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and navigator, is the first person to sail directly from Europe to India in 1498.  Prof. Wijesundara remarked that the first man to come to India was Da Gama and then lot of other people followed him. Therefore, the Portuguese played a major role in global dissemination of plants. They were the carriers of plants from temperate to tropics areas and vice versa. Some were to become major crops in their new habitats. In terms of introduction of new plants and crops, the Potato, the world’s fourth largest food crop, was introduced to Europe by Spanish conquerors from Peru in the 16th Century.

According to Prof. Wijesundara, the greatest bio-piracy in the 19th century occurred with Sir Henry Alexander Wickham falsely declared 70,000 live seeds of a valuable tree as “academic specimens” and smuggled those out from Brazil to England. Today. It is known as rubber. 27,000 of those germinated and on 12th August 1876, the Colonial Office, sent 38 cases containing 1919 rubber seedlings from Kew Gardens to Ceylon. The seedlings were planted at the Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens in Sri Lanka. In 1877 twenty-two of these young trees were sent to Singapore from Sri Lanka, and seedlings from those trees were distributed throughout Malaysia and Borneo. This is known to be an experimental station. That is how the Asian rubber industry began. In 1848, the British East India Company sent a Scottish Botanist, Robert Fortune on a trip to  China to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing.  Prof. Wijesundara mentioned that the book “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose discloses the information on how tea became the most favourite drink of the entire world. Robert Fortune has travelled from China to India and then to Ceylon bringing his stolen knowledge to these countries. These are the very known cases of bio-piracy in the colonial times.

Role of Botanic Gardens in plant introduction

According to Prof. Wijesundara, in the 17th and 18th centuries botanic gardens became key players in the plant introduction process. This continued through to the 19th and early 20th centuries although responsibility for introductions gradually transferred to agricultural stations or Departments of Agriculture. In Sri Lanka, Chief Justice at the time Aleander Johnston, suggested Sir Josehph Banks to have a botanical garden. Then he assigned the task to William Cur to set up a botanical garden. William Cur set up the first Botanical garden in Sri Lanka, in Slave Island. Since the place did not match the occasion, it was going to be moved to somewhere else and the first Botanic Garden Director, an opium addict dies and perished with the idea. In the last century, the British Empire instituted regular plant collections. Some plant collections were not done with the consent of the owners and this is true to many plant collection occurred in the colonized countries.

Bio-Piracy in the Modern Times: The Cases of Neem, Basmati and Turmeric

Both Prof. Sarath Kotagama and Prof. Siril Wijesuriya highlighted how in the modern times bio-piracy is happening citing the cases of Neem, Basmati and Turmeric as classic examples of modern bio-piracy and how the developing countries took action to overturn this trend of unfair patenting – or rather legalizing theft of bio items.

According to Prof. Wijesundara, in 1994, a multinational company, W.R. Grace and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were granted a patent by the European Patent Office (EPO) “Covering a (special) method for controlling fungi on plants by the aid of a hydrophobic extracted neem oil” that is diluted with a certain percentage of water was withdrawn in 2000. Lot of concern after 10 year battle, some patents on neem were squashed some still prevail. There are 65 patents so far only for neem. According to Prof. Kotagama, a US company wanted to produce insecticide from neem. They came with Azadariktin as a product. They obtain the patenting required to use and own neem. There is a law that if you are contesting patenting right it has to be in the country it is registered at. So the neem battle has to be fought in the US. With lot of money and help from the NGOs and help along with the Indian government they fought against this patenting. The company contested that they did not bring neem from Asia or India, they brought it from Africa because it grows in Africa. But it was identified that the seeds that had gone to Kenya had been coming from Sri Lanka according to the Registers of the forest department records from Sri Lank. Based on that evidence the patent was revoked. The neem campaign was consisting of a group of NGOs and individuals was initiated in 1993 in India. This was done to mobilize worldwide support to protect indigenous knowledge systems and resources of the Third World from piracy by the west particularly in light of emerging threats from intellectual property rights regimes under WTO and TRIPS. Neem patent became the first case to challenge European and US patents on the grounds of biopiracy.

Basmati Rice patent case is another instance bio-piracy was reversed. Prof. Kotagama remarked that it is known as the India – US Basmati Rice Dispute (Case number 493, Case Menemonic – Basmati; Patent number – US 5663484A, publication). A US company registered a new hybrid variety of Basmati. India and Pakistan got together and they fought using media, using negative advertisement and they squashed American variety of Basmati) proving ‘Texmati’ was not Basmati.

According to Prof. Sarath Kotagama, an Indian Ecologist, Vandana Shiva has said ‘bio-piracy deprives us in three ways: It creates a false claim to novelty and invention, even though the knowledge has evolved since ancient times as part of the collective and intellectual heritage of India”. Secondly “it divests scarce biological resources to monopoly control of corporations thus depriving local communities the benefits of its use” and thirdly “it creates market monopolies and excludes the original innovators (farmers) from their rightful share to local, national and global markets”.  She fought a lot for the biodiversity conservation in India and a well-respected ecologist in India who also had to do much with the fight against Neem, Basmati and Turmeric.

There are similar cases where patents were revoked: Kava Kava from Fiji and Vanuatu; Quinoa from Andes; Banaba and other medical plantys from Philippines; Bitter gourd from Sri Lanka and Thailan; Ilang-Ilang from Philippines and Periwinkle from Madagascar, highlighted Prof. Wijesundara.

In 1989 bioprospecting started with the Institute of Biology established in Costa Rica purely for this purpose. It was the idea to do research on rainforests, animals and plants in Costa Rica and give the ownership to the country if something was discovered. However, this institute was dissolved in 2015 in Costa Rica.  According to Prof. Kotagama, the institute still exists with the idea surveys on the resources of rainforests and commercialization of the products will be done for the benefit of Costs Rica. Prof. Kotagama highlighted why bio-piracy needs to be also understood in legal jargon. In the research paper “Bio piracy and its impact on Biodiversity: A Special review on Sri Lankan context” (Kusal Kavinda Amarasinghe), it has mentioned that 34 plants and animals have been taken out of Sri Lanka and Indian subcontinent and patent obtained for biological constituents already. According to Prof. Kotagama, Naja naja naja (Cobra) is an endemic spices in Sri Lanka and still it has lost the control from the country and others are using the species to derive benefits. Prof. Kotagama also highlighted that while there is so much indifference, there is so much consorted efforts to prevent bio-piracy and bio-theft in the countries like the Philippine, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Nepal who have strengthen the situation and have increased regulations and continue strict border control measures.

Illegal Trafficking and Bio-Piracy

According to Prof. Siril Wijesundara, illegal trafficking is also directly linked to bio-piracy and theft. One of the ways that can prevent bio-piracy is through detecting illegal trafficking of various types of endemic and endangered plants and animals. Most common plant species affected by illegal trafficking in Sri Lanka at present are Gyrinops Walla Walla patta, Salacia reticulate Kothala Himbutiand Santalum album naturalized sandhun.  Sri Lanka Customs have detected many instances of illegal trafficking. Target destination varies from India, Dubai, Pakistan, Australia, and China. The most popular destination for Kothala Himbotu today is China.

Another classic example of trafficking of plants is by misleading the authorities. Prof. Wijesundara highlighted that a plant called Kekatiya (Aponogeton crispus) were exported in large quantities under the name Aponogeton ulvaceus, a plant native to Madagascar. However, Prof. Siril Wijesuriya mentioned that during his tenure at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, he managed to test this plant and discovered it is a different plant from the one in Madagascar. After this discovery, this Sri Lankan variety of the plant (Kekatiya) was prohibited from being exported and necessary action were taken to a point where the company went out of business.

Importance of Utilizing the Chemical Compounds in the Medicinal Plants

Prof. Veranja Karunarathne highlighted the popularity among the people now for medicinal plants. That is because the Medicinal properties and compounds that are useful found in the medicinal plants. Natural products are made out of these compounds. According to him, the use of medicinal plants go over for 5000 years ago. Probably we have used medicinal plants since existence.

According to Prof. Veranja Karunarathne, the medicinal plants are being used in traditional medicinal systems popular in Sri Lanka such as Ayurveda, Deishiya Chikithsa, Siddha and Unani. Siddha and Unani don’t use much of the plants necessarily and have much to do with involving plants. In different medicinal systems, over 2500 plants are being used in Sri Lanka. These are being used for disease curing and ailments in traditional medicine practices. In the Western medicine sense, it is one compound for one disease. In Ayurveda and indigenous system, it is many compounds for one disease many compounds curing one disease. Pollypahrmachology is accepted in the indigenous system. These aspects of pollypahrmachology in traditional medicine are becoming valuable. If we take asprin that cures heart disease, it is isolated from Villon plant. Quinine that is used in Malaria prevention is isolated from cinchona plant. That is the practice of the Western medicine. Prof. Veranja Karunarathne says that if we look at plant evolution, it is evident that the plants didn’t intend to cure diseases. This evolution of the plants happened by co-evolving with the insects. It never intended to cure diseases for humans. In 1915, the Western medicine avoided using plants due to various issues including intellectual property matters and since plants are very difficult thing to manage. However, they have come back discovering medicine from plants. That is why co-evolution is important. Diversity of functional group of plants is important.  Diversity of use of plants cannot be matched with the evolution of the plants.

From Kothala Himbotu, an endemic plant in Sri Lanka, water soluble anti diabetic compounds were found by Japanese scientist. There are over 50 patents for Kothala Himbotu plant. Sri Lanka has only one patent which was a discovery of a Sri Lankan team. As a Chemist who worked on the kothala himbotu plant and tried to find the chemical compounds, Prof. Karunarathne felt humiliated when Japanese scientists found that water based compound in the kothala himbotu plant. He used a Sri Lankan source and worked on a zeroing from Sri Lankan lichen, patented at the US patent office the, lichen called ziorine that can be used on cancer patients. Sri Lankan government dealing legally with bio-piracy is when they intervened to stop exporting Kothala Himbotu plant in bulk that is being used for anti-diabetic drug. For anti-diabetic drug creation some sections of the plant are still being exported, but in small quantities.

In the meantime, there is also bogus bio-piracy.  An undergraduate student of University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka found out that Clarins skin care product in France is using Hortinia floribanda that is endemic to Sri Lanka. In their website it was mentioned that this plant is being used to improve the skin tone. When studied their website, closely, they found that they are using plants found in amazon and plant found in Europe during winter. After finding the endemic Sri Lankan plant do not contribute to any skin tone improvement and when the research was published in National Science Foundation journal, the skin care production company removed the name of the plant from their website. This is an instance where bogus bio-piracy is being taken place and that it too needs to fight and that even an average Chemist can make a difference, said Prof. Varanja Karunarathne.

According to Prof. Varanja Karunarathne, there are about 3000 odd plants endemic to Sri Lanka, out of the total flowering plants, 2000 are endemic. Because of this density and diversity, UNESCO named Sri Lanka as a biodiversity hotspot. 1300 of these plants are in the Red book of endangered plants of Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the value of the plant is only the timber value. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka value plants in Sri Lanka only for its timber value which is a drawback. The government needs to fund for projects that study the chemistry of these plants, government never have done such in that greater scale. The chemists would want be able to study the chemistry inside the plant, the knowledge inside the plant. It is important to lobby to find the chemicals of these plants that are endangered to Sri Lanka. This means conserving the knowledge inside the plant is much more than just evaluating its value for timber. There is a far greater use of the plant than just the timber value.

During the discussion, Mr. Lakshman Gunasekara highlighted the importance of getting media involved along with the Scientists to intervene in promoting knowledge, education and awareness about bio-piracy and possible ways of counter-fighting it. He said that unlike in the past, mass communication can bring this issue to a different level. In this regard the scientific community needs to intervene in order for the media community to get activated. However, Prof. Siril Wijesundara made a remark that media is always working with political agendas, but Scientists are not and they cannot do so. Therefore, it is important, media step aside from political agendas and look at this issue apolitically.

Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri highlighted the colonial dimension of bio-piracy. With the involvement of government in bio-piracy and the inclusion of concept of government and empire –building bio-politics came into being. In empire building, establishing the political centre outside the location of the centre was important. Same is true to colonialism which was more than traditional Empire building exercise. It was new kind of administration, where there was capturing a grip on the land and space, fauna and flora. It was rather “governmentalization” which has multiple dimension. According to him, in that sense, colonialism is a multidimensional phenomenon. It is not more colonialism now; it is a new process. This is very much part of the enlightenment project at the time. It was governed by knowledge. Accumulation of information of social and natural environment became a new kind of project. The new political challenge is also this.

Prof. Nalani Hennayake highlighted the fact that how in terms of conservation and information sharing India came out with digital library registered with patent offices in the inventories library in the United States, while Sri Lanka has our own Red Book of inventory.  She further highlighted the fact that countries like Sri Lanka having enough laws that needs immediate activation. Monopolizing the ownership needs to end and commercializing our plants needs to happen according to the Fauna and Flora Act in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka said no to digital register of plants in 1994 and we need to rethink such decisions mentioned the discussants.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Veranja Karunarathne said that at present, other people are working on synthetic biology, combination of chemistry, biology and genomics, creating biosynthetic pathway of genes. Genes are mass produced in genomic mass factories which is controlled exploitation of bio wealth. That is where the world is heading and he says Sri Lanka needs to value the conserved knowledge inside the plant and explore the immense possibilities that the plants are presenting.