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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
UN moves to curb bio-piracy
Man cleaning teeth with neem tree product, Action Aid
India's neem tree was at centre of a patent controversy
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Hirsch, BBC
By Tim Hirsch
reporting from The Hague
A United Nations conference has agreed new measures to prevent so-called bio-piracy, the use of wild plants by international companies to develop products such as medicines without rewarding the countries from which they are taken.

A meeting of the convention on biological diversity in The Hague, Netherlands, has drawn up guidelines for developing countries to allow companies into forest areas on condition that they share the benefits of such products.

This would be equivalent to recording me as I'm singing in a nightclub and then taking that recording and pressing thousands of CDs and selling it for lots of money and not sharing it with me

Tomme Young, World Conservation Union
Developing countries have long argued that multi-national corporations have effectively been raiding their forests to make a lot of money for themselves.

It is estimated that plants and animals from tropical countries are worth more than 20bn a year to major pharmaceutical companies and until now, very little of that money has gone back to the developing world.

Plants sacred to native South Americans because of their healing properties have been patented by companies in the United States.

Tomme Young of the World Conservation Union gives an example in which a so-called bio prospector bought some beans in a local market in the developing world.

"Rather than cooking them, the person took them back into another country and tried to develop patentable products with the genetic material from the beans, and without sharing the value with the people who sold the beans," she said.

"This would be equivalent, say, to recording me as I'm singing in a nightclub and then taking that recording and pressing thousands of CDs and selling it for lots of money and not sharing it with me."

Indigenous people

This latest meeting of the UN convention on biological diversity has now agreed guidelines to help developing countries ensure that they reap some of the benefits of the discoveries made in their forests.

Companies would only be given access if they agreed to give a share of the profits or royalties from the products back to the countries in which they are operating.

Neem saplings awaiting planting, Action Aid
Neem is a plant renowned for its healing properties
The Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Klaus Toepfer, said although the guidelines were voluntary, they established generally accepted norms which promised a fairer approach on access to genetic resources.

The guidelines agreed today by more than 150 governments encourage developing countries to allow companies access to their forests in return for a share of the profits from any natural products they develop.

It is hoped this will give a financial incentive to protect the environment.

But representatives of indigenous peoples at the conference said there was still not enough protection for communities living in the forests themselves.

They argue that they, not national governments, should benefit from the traditional knowledge which they say has been stolen from them by international companies.

They say the guidelines are too weak and will not prevent the knowledge and natural wealth of local people being exploited by international industry.

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