Bioprospecting and Biopiracy

The Amazon contains the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world - many of them yet unknown. Pharmaceutical companies are scouting the rainforest for possible new cures and tapping into the wisdom of traditional indigenous healers.

Plants to Cure Diseases

Medicinal plants of the rainforest

Throughout the Amazon, markets feature a rich assortment of medicinal plants, barks, resins, roots, and leaves from the rainforest. (Photo: Howard G. Charing/flickr)

The Amazon harbors a wealth of unique plant species that can be used to cure diseases. In fact, indigenous traditional medicine is based on the plants and animals found in the rainforest. For centuries, indigenous healers have passed on their wisdom from generation to generation – a wisdom that may be lost if deforestation and pollution continue to destroy biodiversity and traditional lifestyles in the Amazon.

Pharmaceutical companies increasingly tap into these resources to develop new medicines. It is estimated that over 200 companies and research organizations worldwide are screening plant and animal compounds for possible drugs and cures for viruses, infections, cancer, and AIDS. This venturing into the rainforest and screening for medicinal properties – called
“bioprospecting” – is not a new development. But new technology has made it much easier and more efficient to analyze molecules and isolate active ingredients. Today, over 20% of our pharmaceutical drugs contain substances from the rain forest.


The health and wellbeing of the Western world, however, often comes at a high price for indigenous peoples. As pharmaceutical companies have realized that their research generates better outcome if they co-operate with indigenous people and tap into their wisdom, rainforest tribes are at risk of losing control over their resources.

Once the pharmaceutical companies have developed the drug, they file patents claiming exclusive rights to the medical use of the plant – hence limiting or even denying access to the plants that indigenous peoples have relied upon for centuries. “90% of genetic resources are in the south and 90% of the patents are in the north,” a European Official summarized the situation in the British “Guardian”. While making billions of Dollars selling rainforest medicine, the industry has to this day failed to compensate indigenous people adequately. This process of “stealing” natural resources and knowhow from indigenous peoples is called “biopiracy”.

The Nagoya Protocol

In 2010, which was the “International Year of Biodiversity”, the tenth Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing. It specifically addresses the issue of bioprospecting and the rights of indigenous peoples to access to forest resources, intellectual property, and adequate compensation.

Contracting parties are to ensure indigenous communities’ prior informed consent, and fair and equitable benefit-sharing, keeping in mind community laws and procedures as well as customary use and exchange.

At this point, however, only 16 countries have ratified the Nagoya protocol. The European Union and 24 of its 27 member states have signed the convention, but are yet to ratify it. The Nagoya Protocol will enter into force after 50 states have ratified it.

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