Biodiversity prospecting is the exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and indigenous knowledge for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources. While it is true that biodiversity prospecting does not always involve the use of indigenous knowledge, it is clear that valuable chemical compounds derived from plants, animals and micro-organisms are more easily identified and are of greatest commercial value when collected with indigenous knowledge and/or found in territories traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples.
Between 1956 and 1976 the U.S. National Cancer Institute screened over 35,000 plants and animals for anti-cancer compounds. The program was terminated in 1981 because of its failure to identify a greater number of new anti-cancer agents. A retrospective study conducted on the project concluded that the success rate in finding valuable species could have been doubled if medicinal folk knowledge had been the only information used to target species. Similarly in another instance scientists found that 86 percent of the plants used by Samoan healers displayed significant biological activity when tested in the laboratory.
Biopiracy can be defined as the stealing of knowledge from traditional and indigenous communities or individuals. The term can also be used to suggest a breach of a contractual agreement on the access and use of traditional knowledge to the detriment of the provider and bioprospecting without the consent of the local communities. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration [ETC group, Canada (former RAFI)] defines it as “the appropriation of the knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions seeking exclusive monopoly control (usually patents or plant breeders’ rights) over these resources and knowledge”.
There is a distinct difference between biopiracy and bioprospecting. The term ‘biopiracy’ describes the unauthorized and uncompensated taking and use of biological resources. In contrast, bioprospecting refers to the search for valuable active chemical compounds in nature, and involves accessing natural resources through legal means, securing prior informed consent from the custodians of the relevant natural resources and promoting equitable benefit sharing agreements with appropriate parties. Biopiracy deprives not only the custodians of biological resources but also the country concerned.
The modus operandi of the MNCs has been to collect the plant varieties and their germplasms from poor countries in order to cross- breed them with other varieties, and claim that they had invented something novel, non-obvious and of practical use (which are the requirements for acquiring patent rights), and then to patent them in their own countries or in any other country of their choice. Thus even though India is rich in biodiversity and has a rich biodiversity related intellectual heritage, biopiracy directs this wealth away from India and denies us our rights to use our resources and knowledge, for our needs and our economic benefits.