Using the properties of plants from Tanzania, companies in the western world are making huge profits while giving nothing to the local people. An example is the ‘Busy Lizzie’ or impatiens usambarensis, one of the most popular plants among British gardeners, providing instant colour in even the most challenging flower beds. It is native to East Africa; its centre of origin is in the Usambara mountains.
The launch of a strain of ‘trailing’ Busy Lizzie by the multinational biotech giant Syngenta is a classic example of ‘biopiracy’, the term being increasingly used by environmental groups to portray a new form of ‘colonial looting’ where Western corporations reap large profits by taking out copyrights on indigenous materials from developing countries and turning them into, for example, medicines or cosmetics. In very few cases are any of the financial benefits shared with the country of origin. Usambarensis make excellent hanging basket displays, a demand which feeds a lucrative market for the horticultural industry in the western world.
Launching the Busy Lizzie with a fanfare, the company claimed that ‘after many years of research’ it had produced a plant that ‘can achieve, at maturity, trails including up to 70cm masses of large flowers throughout the summer until the first frost’. The plant retails at from £2 for a single small potted plant to over £10 for a hanging basket. In the US the impatiens usambarensis market is worth $148 million a year.
Despite admitting that such hybrids happened naturally in Tanzania, Syngenta claimed the new plant was its ‘invention’ and the British authorities granted the company exclusive rights. Syngenta has applied for copyright in Europe and the US claiming that all trailing growth in crosses of usambarensis are its property including all plants, sexually or asexually produced, seeds, ovules, embryos and pollen. The copyright reveals that Syngenta obtained the seeds of the Tanzanian plant from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh that had cultivated them ‘from a wild collection from Tanzania’. The seeds were from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew collected in 1982.
I reviewed the relevant Syngenta sources in search of information about how Tanzania might have benefited over the years. The only mention I found concerned a contribution of a portion of its profits from impatiens to a British hospice for ill children. Nothing at all to Tanzania’s poor people. More interestingly, there is nothing to suggest or explain how the application to own the copyright of a plant originating in Tanzania was acquired without Tanzania being involved.
I am of the view that this is a classic case of biopiracy that responsible authorities in Tanzania need to look into. To date there are more than 30 examples of western medical, horticultural and cosmetic products alleged to have been ‘pirated’ from Africa. An analysis of these copyrights reveals that impatiens usambarensis is one of seven granted by the UK authorities without involving Tanzania.
Even though the development of such products is widely hailed and the companies involved deny the accusations of biopiracy, there is a need to be aware of the fact that it is no longer acceptable to trawl across other countries taking what you want for your own commercial benefit. As there are internationally recognised rights for oil, so there should be for indigenous plants, resources such as tanzanite and knowledge. To Tanzania this biopiracy can be described as ‘a silent disease’, it is hardly detectable, it frequently does not leave traces. Regrettably, such issues do not attract the same media coverage or public outcry as other environmental problems, such as deforestation, pollutant emissions and the threat of global warming.
A few years ago a British drug firm known as Phytopharm patented an active ingredient in a plant called hoodia found in some parts of Tanzania. This is a cactus-like plant that is used by the Hadzape people in Singida to ward off hunger before hunting trips. Phytopharm linked with Unilever are developing this as a diet drug to curb the obesity problem which is said to claim about 30,000 lives every year in the UK. Unilever has agreed to pay up to £21m to Phytopharm.
Some form of benefit sharing is what is needed. I would like to challenge Tanzanian lawyers to forge a benefit-sharing agreement that would see the local people getting a small share of any profits. It is not just in the world of medicine and horticulture but also in fashion that there is a debate over biopiracy. In 2004 British university scientists working with a US firm copyrighted bacteria that are found only in the caustic Lake Natron Rift Valley in Tanzania. When jeans are washed with a chemical made up of the microbes, an enzyme is produced that ‘eats’ the indigo dye, giving them a naturally faded look. The company making this product makes more than $1million a year in sales of this detergent to textile firms.
Entering into a benefit-sharing agreement is the only way forward. In the case of impatiens usambarensis there are unanswered questions. For example who would Syngenta share the benefits with? The Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh where it got the seeds? Or The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew where the seeds had come from previously? Or The Tanzanian government – Tanzania being the only country on the planet where the plant with the trailing characteristic is found? Or a local community in Tanzania?
The International Convention on Biological Diversity that promised to recognise property rights was signed in 1994. This agreement did not prohibit the collection of indigenous material but it did recommend that agreements should be reached to share any commercial benefit that later emerges.