Biopiracy in Africa
The new plunder: Africa's plants
By Antony Barnett
Business In Africa
The Busy Lizzie is one of the most popular plants among British gardeners, providing instant colour to even the most challenging flower beds. Yet this humble plant is now caught up in an international row over patents, human rights and the exploitation of poor communities in the developing world.
The launch of a new strain of ‘trailing’ Busy Lizzie by the multinational biotech giant Syngenta is, say campaigners, a classic example of what they have dubbed ‘biopiracy’. This term is being increasingly used by environmental groups to describe a new form of colonial pillaging, where Western corporations reap large profits by taking out patents on indigenous materials from developing countries and turning them into products such as medicines and cosmetics — which can be extremely valuable in Western markets. In very few cases are any of the financial benefits shared with the country of origin.
An analysis by The Observer of patents issued by the British authorities reveal they have granted several companies patents for at least seven products that originated from naturally occurring African plants or organisms.
The dispute over the Busy Lizzie revolves around the drive to create the perfect hanging basket display, a demand which feeds a lucrative market for the horticultural industry. Despite its massive popularity the Busy Lizzie — or Impatiens walleriana — has always had one downside: it is exclusively upright.
For years botanists had been hunting for a way to make Busy Lizzies trail downwards. Researchers believed that if they could find this magic extra, the plant would be ideal for hanging baskets and a botanical gold mine would be theirs for the taking.
With great fanfare in April last year Syngenta launched the Spellbound Busy Lizzie. The company claimed that “after many years of research” it had produced a Busy Lizzie that “can achieve, at maturity, trails of 70cm (about 28 ins) masses of large flowers throughout the summer until the first frost”.
The plant went on sale at garden centres across North America and Europe for £2 a plant, and Syngenta promoted it through retailers such as B&Q and Wyevale Garden Centres with its own mascot: Lizzie the Spellbound Fairy. It was a great commercial success and more varieties have been launched.
But behind the marketing glitz and talk of magical creatures, an analysis of the British patent taken out by Syngenta for its new floral ‘invention’ reveals that Spellbound’s magical secret comes from a rare African plant, the Impatiens usambarensis. This grows in the unique ecological habitat of the Usambara mountain range in Tanzania, just south of Mount Kilimanjaro. In its patent Syngenta describes this plant as having “no commercial significance”.
Syngenta’s botanists discovered that by crossing the two plants, the Busy Lizzie displayed the much-sought-after trailing growth habit. Despite admitting that such hybrids happened naturally in Tanzania, Syngenta claimed that it had invented the new plant, and the British authorities granted the company a patent in February 2004.
The patent reveals that Syngenta obtained the seeds of the African plant from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, which had cultivated them “from a wild collection from Tanzania”. A spokeswoman says that the Gardens had received the seeds in 1982 from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. They had been deposited there in 1976 by Christopher Grey-Wilson, a former president of the Alpine Garden Society.
“This appears to be a classic case of biopiracy,” says Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner from ActionAid. “This is the silent plunder of natural resources from developing countries. Here we have a large multinational taking out a patent on a plant that grows naturally in a part of Africa and claiming it is their invention. Now the company is making a fortune selling it to the mass market, but the Tanzania communities that live in these regions will not receive one penny.”
In 1994 more than 100 countries, including Britain, signed the International Convention on Biological Diversity that promised to recognise the property rights of developing countries. It did not prohibit the collection of indigenous material, but recommended that agreements should be reached to share any commercial benefit that later emerges.
A Syngenta spokesman admitted it had paid nothing for the seeds. He said: “We got them in 1990 before the international convention came into force. In any case our paperwork shows that when we received the seeds nobody knew exactly which country they came from.”
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