There are pirates on the loose. Not on seas but on land. They are not after gold, war booty or kegs of rum. They are after every life form in Asia.
The biopirates, swashbuckling silently but recklessly with incalculable stakes for humankind, are genomic companies and their pharmaceutical partners rushing to privatize microorganisms, plants and animals.
The region’s biodiversity is the target. Nontimber forest plants, agricultural crops and medicinal plants, along with the indigenous knowledge that go with them from indigenous peoples, are being looted by monopoly companies that make millions of dollars patenting and processing them into marketable by-products.
The most widely known case of biopiracy in the Philippines was the theft of an antibiotic drug from a microorganism, which was isolated from a soil in a cemetery in Iloilo in 1949 by a Filipino scientist Abelardo Aguilar, who hailed from the province.
While working with the American drug company Eli Lilly Co., one of biggest pharmaceutical firms in the United States, Aguilar discovered the drug, naming the soil isolate Ilosone in honor of Iloilo. Eli Lilly made use of Ilosone to produce the world-known antibiotic erythromycin and promised Aguilar a hefty share as well as royalties from the earnings.
Aguilar never received any centavo from his former employer even with the Philippine government’s intervention. Today, erythromycin earns for Eli Lilly, which now owns the patent for the soil isolate, some $120 million yearly.
Biopiracy is the exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and indigenous knowledge for commercial, genetic and biochemical purposes. It is done by multinational firms and governments of developed countries with covert cooperation with scientists from victim nations. They patent and map chromosomes of genetic resources without informing, consulting and acknowledging and duly compensating the sources.
Theft of painkiller
In 1995 Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney of the University of Arizona bared in their book Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, a stunning biopiracy, shrouded with obscurity, because of the involvement of some Philippine government scientists in the discovery of painkiller from a Philippine snail and its having patented by a foreign company.
The drug, called SNX 111, was considered the most powerful painkiller ever discovered—being 1,000 times stronger than morphine—is a product of peptides from the Philippine sea snail (Conus magus) found in Palawan.
It was pirated allegedly with the help of researchers from a government state university for the US-based pharmaceutical Neurex Inc. and University of Utah. It was reported that sales of the painkiller have reached $80 million annually with nary a centavo for the Philippines.
SNX 111 is worth more outside the United States as it is highly in demand in battlefields that dot so many spots in the world today.
Neurex has, likewise, patented the use of the snail toxins to treat victims of stroke under US patent numbers 5,189,020, 5,559,095 and 5,587,454, Fowler and Mooney bared in their 270 page book.
Biopirates are mostly biologists, botanists, agriculturists and medical doctors paid by the corporate world. They seek to exploit biological information. The raw material they need is DNA, the blueprint of life of plant and animal genes. They are the gene hunters and have invaded many Asian shores, including the Philippines.
Good-bye, ‘talong, ampalaya’
Absurd as it may be, Filipinos, especially Ilocanos who are fond of pinakbet, a vegetable dish with fish sauce, may soon be buying their
ampalaya or bitter melon (Momordica charantia) in the future from American seed companies.
The reason: ampalaya is now owned by the United States government after patenting it with US patent numbers 5,484,889 for the US National Institute of Health; JP6501089 for the US Army and EP 552257 for the New York University.
That is not all. A decoction from ampalaya, talong (eggplant, Solanum melongena) and lomboy, or rose apple tree (Suzgium cumini), that was discovered to remedy diabetes, is now owned by a US firm. No thanks to the government’s turtle-paced medical science and technology program.
Both vegetables and fruit are known to have diabetic remedies but the US pharmaceutical company, Cromak Research Inc. of New Jersey, beat the Philippine government to the draw. The diabetic remedy was granted US patent number 5,900,240, preventing the Philippines from making any similar drug decoction from crops its originally owned.
In 2004, while doing a study report for London’s Minority Rights International, published as “The Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Asia,” this writer came to know of a Philippine yew tree (Taxus sumatrana) found only on Mount Pulag, Benguet, that was patented by scientists from a US university.
The tree contains taxol, a cancer-curing derivative, used in treating ovarian and breast cancer. The biopirates were able to gain permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Cordillera region office to collect tree samples on Mount Pulag. I included this in my Minority Rights International publication.
The tree’s bark, when boiled as tea by the indigenous Ibalois and Kalanguyas who dwell on the foot of Mount Pulag, produces a bloodlike decoction drank to cure internal ailments, something I tried many times and indeed soothed tiredness.
Protecting the ‘gasoline tree’
Biopiracy attempts continue. In 2008 Edenspace, the fifth-biggest pharmaceutical company in the US, offered to pay for the knowledge on how to grow gasoline and extract it from a tree called Pittosporum resineferum to the environmental group Cordillera Ecological Center (CEC) that discovered and developed it as an energy source for indigenous peoples pushing for rural development.
The tree locally called hanga or dael produces high heptane, e-pine and dihydroterpene, flammable components of gasoline, enabling it to be used as substitute to liquefied petroleum gas for cooking and fuel for gasoline engines.
CEC refused the US company’s request but offers continued to come from Japan, India, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.
CEC continues to grow gasoline from the trees.
This writer, who heads CEC, discovered the tree’s potential as fuel and developed its oil as sustainable alternative energy as well as perfected the agronomical cultural practices in raising the trees, as well.
Food crops threatened
The Convention of Biodiversity (CBD) said the Philippines is one of 18 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, containing two-thirds of the earth’s biodiversity and between 70 percent and 80 percent of the world’s plant and animal species.
But it warns its plant life is thinning as 99 species are critically endangered, 187 endangered, 176 vulnerable, as well and 64 others are threatened species.
Three Philippine indigenous rice species and two yam species were recently added by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to its Red List. IUCN, based in Switzerland, is the international watchdog of world biodiversity.
CBD added that the Philippine list also includes threatened faunal species: 42 species of land mammals, 127 species of birds, 24 species of reptiles and 14 species of amphibians.
The main culprit to the fast decimation of the country’s biodiversity is mainly due to loss and destruction of habitat, poor conservation policies and implementation of laws and lack of peoples’ reverence and respect to the environment and wildlife.
Bengwayan has a masters degree and PhD in Development Studies and Environmental Resource Management from University College Dublin, Ireland, as a European Union fellow. He is currently a fellow of Echoing Green Foundation in New York.