Sunday, 24 February 2019 08:21

Sinharaja incident an attempt at bio-piracy?

In the wake of the recent bio theft attempt (the largest ever collection of animals and plants) from Sinharaja, questions remain as to the purpose of the theft. While the authorities have concluded investigations, experts express concern that the incident could be a possible instance of bio-piracy.

As the investigation into the attempt unfolded, it was revealed that the plant and animal specimens were collected from locations around the country and the theft not confined to Sinharaja.

Over 700 families of butterflies and insects, in addition to the plant specimens, some indigenous, were identified and are yet to be classified into individual species.

Conservator General of Forests, Dr. N.D.R Weerawardane told the Sunday Observer that the case has been wrapped following the conclusion of the court case against the five Slovakian nationals involved in collecting the specimens, on Wednesday (February 13). The Slovakians were subjected to a fine of Rs. 10.84 million after they were found guilty for 37 offences under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO) of 1937, Forest Conservation Ordinance (FCO) and the National Heritage Areas Act.

However, experts believe the incident should be taken more seriously, especially in light of the possibility of bio-piracy, which is the taking of intellectual property rights over biological materials, including biochemical compounds, genetic materials and associated traditional knowledge, which belong to another country, where as bio theft is the illegal collection and exportation of animals, plants and parts.

According to Environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law, Jagath Gunawardana, most people involved in bio-piracy also involve in bio theft, since approaching biological material via proper channels will require them to share any consequent intellectual property rights. “Therefore, the motivation for bio theft and subsequent bio-piracy, is the greed and the desire to monopolise. The main intellectual property tool used for bio-piracy is the patent, while plant breeders’ rights are used sometimes,” he says.

Butterfly poison in demand

Specimen collecting is a type of bio theft, where the collected specimens end up in university, museum, research and private collections. Gunawardena said that those who engage in bio-theft are well educated, knowledgeable about the specific subject areas and hold responsible positions in their respective countries.

He said that generally dead specimens similar to those found from the recent attempt are collected for this purpose. However, some of the biochemical material can be extracted after the animal dies. “For example, butterflies carry poisons, some produced within the body and some acquired through larval feeding of plants. There is currently ongoing research into the medical properties of these poisons,” he said.

The collection also had beetles which Gunawardana said have certain biochemical compounds that can be extracted, adding that the only certainty with regard to the recent collection is the inability to use dead and dry compounds for genetic research. He said that the methods of plant collection by the Slovakians indicated that they could be for the extraction of biological material.

Former Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe recalls a similar incident a few years back, where a group of German nationals were arrested with a large collection of plants and animals gathered from different regions of the country. “In principle, these could be instances of bio-piracy since they were attempting to smuggle the biological material without informing anyone. Through regular channels, they would have to collaborate with a local party to take the material out, which would have minimised the chance of bio-piracy,” he said.

Bio theft has been occurring in Sri Lanka for over two decades where Japanese, German, Dutch, Czech and Slovakian nationals were involved in these incidents.

True impact of bio-piracy

Through bio theft a physical material loss takes place, while bio-piracy results in the loss of rights or interference of rights. “Due to this, the use of our biological diversity and traditional knowledge for the benefit of the country and the people is being obstructed,” Gunawardana said.

When associated traditional knowledge is acquired by a third party, it is possible to carry out target testing. “If the knowledge is common to few countries, it is a common piracy. Sometimes the biological material in question is found in a few countries, but the knowledge is specific to Sri Lanka and specifically stolen from us,” he said.

This traditional knowledge is then used as the base in scientific research, which is then proved using scientific knowledge and exploring to claim as something novel by the third party involved in bio-piracy, according to Gunawardana. This he said are the reasons behind piracy of traditional knowledge, the fact that it makes very simple to build on traditional knowledge.

“Sri Lanka has traditional preparations that are known cures for specific diseases, which is used by third parties to make drugs. This way, they steal our 1,000 years of knowledge without any compensation,” he said.

He said microorganisms are also targeted on a large scale, where two of the newly discovered microorganism species from Sri Lanka and their secretions were subjected to piracy.

“One is Fragiliomycin complex, which is used to produce the antibiotic, Fragiliomycin A,” he said.

Gunawardana related a classic example of bio-piracy, where Saw Scaled Viper is patented in the USA, to cover its genetic code sequence (set of rules used to translate information encoded within genetic material into proteins), amino acid sequence (the order in which basic building blocks of proteins lie within the specific protein) and the protein, its uses and all genetically modified organisms which carries the gene and can produce the protein. These are believed to be used for the production of anticoagulants (the medicines that help blood thinning and prevent blood clots) and other drugs.

Counter mechanisms

Another notorious example is the patent applied by the University of British Colombia for all possible hybrids of the five endemic species of Binara, that can be used as ornamental plants. “The scientist concerned in this case, Andrew Riceman, obtained the material from a Sri Lankan scientist who carried them abroad for his PhD thesis. After several joint publications, ultimately the patent was obtained solely under the name of Riceman,” Gunawardana disclosed.

To counter bio-piracy incidents of this nature, a Material Transfer Agreement has been introduced. “When biological material is being taken abroad for research purposes, a material transfer agreement is signed in collaboration with a local party. This local party signs an agreement with the Forest Department (FD) or the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and remains responsible for the material taken out of Sri Lanka,” said Director, Biodiversity Secretariat, Padma Abeykoon.

This gives the country a certain amount of control since it is known the material has been taken out for research purpose, she said.

The terms in the agreement state that the material should not be used for any other purpose than that stated in the export permit. In the case of obtaining intellectual property rights, further permission is necessary from the FD or DWC. However, Sathurusinghe said one loophole in tackling bio-piracy is the absence of a mechanism to take action if a foreigner is found to be carrying biological material from Sri Lanka at an international border, which Gunawardana said is a problem faced by the entire world in tackling bio-piracy and bio theft.

Abeykoon said the way to tackle bio-piracy or bio theft, is for the community and the officers of the DWC and FD to remain vigilant. Legal action can then be taken as per the provisions in the FFPO and FCO. Dr. Weerawardane seconded this, saying that the community’s assistance is crucial to minimising recurring incidents of bio-piracy.

The recent attempt was intercepted only after a botanist who arrived at Sinharaja with a tour group reported his suspicions. Even then, the locals defended suspicious parties, which according to Gunawardana, should not happen.

“However, in this case, the theft was at least intercepted halfway, without going to Sri Lanka Customs, which is referred to as the last line of defence,” he said.

Gunawardana also said that the authorities should make more effort to take action when information of any suspicious activity reach them. Also, law enforcement officers need periodic training and update in knowledge. There needs be a comprehensive mechanism to tackle bio theft with the involvement of Police, Customs, Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department, Fisheries Department, FD and DWC, at least in vulnerable areas, Gunawardana said.

An effective mechanism to identify and classify all such collected material accurately to aid prosecution, also remains important, where experts should be willing to assist the authorities and provide evidence where required. “At one time the situation was so bad, that Section 35 of FFPO was amended to bring in a new Subsection which made it possible for experienced wildlife officers of certain grades to be treated as experts. Thus, it is important for FD and DWC to have the capacities in identification,” he said.

(Sunday Observer)

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