Sunday, August 27, 2006

The new piracy: how West 'steals' Africa's plants

The article in todays Observer (Sunday, August 27, 2006; article) on biopiracy is quiet revealing in terms of the industries position (or at least those cited in the article).

First, one of the companies cited (Phytopharm) claimed, that the specific tribe was already extint, and then its CEO makes the point of what a pitty it would be, if this traditional knowledge would die out as these people become westernised.

Five years ago The Observer became the first newspaper to reveal how the British drug firm Phytopharm had patented an active ingredient in a plant called hoodia. This is a cactus-like African plant that is used by the San bushmen in South Africa to ward off hunger before hunting trips. Phytopharm has linked with Unilever to market this product, now being developed, as a diet drug. Unilever has agreed to pay up to £21m to Phytopharm, which originally claimed the tribe was extinct.

'In any case it takes a huge effort and a lot of money from recognising a particular property in a plant and developing it into a drug. It can cost between $200m and $500m [£100m-£250m]. If companies could not get the protection of a patent then they simply would not bother. Then what would happen is that the traditional knowledge of these communities would die out with the people or be lost as they become westernised.'


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