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Free trade and bio-prospecting: Opportunities for Peru

27 October 2006

Free Trade and Bio-Prospecting: Opportunities for Peru

Info provided and translated by the American Chamber of Commerce of Peru (AmCham Peru)

By Manuel Ruiz Muller, Director of the Program of International Matters and Biodiversity in the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law

Opportunities to develop bio-prospecting in Peru are on the rise. This article describes the initiatives and proposals that have paved the way towards this development on the basis of current legislation. The Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) with the United States contains potentials for this goal.

Relationships are evermore apparent among conservation, sustainable profits of biodiversity and the possibilities of scientific, economic and social development. In that sense, bio-prospecting, bio-technology and intellectual property make up critical variables that interrelate in terms of the debate on access, use, rights and control of the components of biodiversity. This is especially true as far as their application and use in the field of research, in pharmaceutical and agro-industrial development, the cosmetic sector, nutritional supplements, bio-remedies, and the food industry, among others.

What is Bio-Prospecting?

It refers to activities of collection and research of biodiversity components (genes, proteins, DNA, gene sequences, molecules, among others), especially by applying modern bio-technologies, in search of elements that can help science and industrial and commercial activities within the spectrum of human innovation.

The beginning of the 1990s brought the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) into the multilateral arena, and its principles and obligations on conservation, sustainability and just, equitable distribution of benefits derived from access and use of genetic resources. A few years later, the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) took leadership in developing Decision 391 on a common procedure for access to genetic resources (1996).

Then Peru promulgated Law 27811, which established “the protection of the collective knowledge of indigenous people with respect to biodiversity” (2001).

Recently, in its Chapter on Environment and in the Letter of Understanding on Biodiversity, the TPA (a.k.a. Free-Trade Agreement (FTA)) between Peru and the United States reaffirmed the strategic importance of biodiversity for Peru and the need to consolidate and promote the fulfillment of principles and commitments assumed in the BDA and regional and national legislation.

The TPA and its Achievements

The inclusion of biodiversity in the text of the TPA/FTA achieves the following:

- The recognition of biodiversity as a strategic interest of Peru in order to develop actions for the promotion of its sustainable use and conservation.
- To guarantee and protect national interests, the TPA offers interesting options such as the inclusion of references to the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people, the establishment of prior consent, and the right and equitable distribution of benefits. The need to improve the search mechanisms of the patent system, the possibility of generating databases on biodiversity, and the possibilities of using contracts as instruments to regulate the conditions of access and use of biodiversity, among other things, also offer interesting options.

Against this background, if Peru’s biodiversity has been scarcely taken advantage of, then bio-prospecting activities must be a central part as well as a winning bet. Thus, for example, the Environmental Cooperation Agreement (ECA) of the TPA could channel part of the resources that must be committed for their implementation towards bio-prospecting activities and towards research and development (R&D) on biodiversity.

In recent years, the Research Institute on the Peruvian Amazon Region (IIAP), the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University (UPCH), the International Potato Center (CIP) and some other institutions undertake — without the support or incentives from legally qualified organizations of the State — bio-prospecting activities in the Andean and Amazon regions.

In association with universities, institutions, foreign companies and indigenous communities, these organizations are developing bio-technological capabilities and are trying to discover commercial and industrial applications for components of wildlife and domestic biodiversity. To do this, they are betting on strengthening capabilities - especially human capabilities - and are trying to assure that their best researchers have the resources and means to apply their knowledge in these fields.

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program constitutes the best known examples of bio-prospecting projects. It is looking for cures for leishmaniasis, cancer and tuberculosis, and almost 10 years ago joined forces with Washington University, the UPCH, the Museum of Natural History, Searle Pharmaceuticals, and the Aguaruna communities of the jungle, represented by Conap (1994).

The project of the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Technology and the Concytec, the IIAP and the UPCH, has produced another interesting association (2005). In the case of the CIP, a good part of its activities for the genetic improvement of varieties and the conservation and development of resistances to plagues and diseases, are oriented toward the mitigation of the difficulties that small farmers face in Peru and other poor regions of the world.

The efforts are still insufficient, however. What must be done, then, to better develop bio-prospecting in our country?

- Promote public policies specifically oriented to bio-prospecting, the promotion of bio-technology (in terms of national and local needs) and the generation of concrete incentives for R&D in the matter of biodiversity.
- Design R&D projects in biodiversity that incorporate basic principles like established consent and use of contracts, among others. These must include universities, research institutions, NGOs, public institutions, among others, in the framework of a type of “projects development platform” for the Environmental Cooperation Agreement (ECA) led by the Mincetur and the Conam.
- Create bio-prospecting contracts so that research institutions, companies and Peruvian and United States universities, as well as competent public sector organizations and indigenous communities, determine the conditions of access and use of biodiversity components and the commitment to sharing the benefits in a fair and equitable manner.
- Strengthen and consolidate the activities of Indecopi (and especially of the National Commission for the Prevention of Bio-piracy) that in recent years have advocated the revaluation of biodiversity and traditional knowledge, the prevention of acts of bio-piracy, the creation of a database or registries of traditional knowledge to prevent the concession of improper intellectual property rights in Peru and abroad, among other actions.
- Create a multidisciplinary and inter-sectoral workgroup that analyzes and studies the different areas of the TPA in order to take immediate advantage of biodiversity matters, and rapidly propose areas for development and projects (or the adoption of necessary measures) for the negotiation with the American counterpart. This team would imply a very close coordination among the Mincetur, the Conam and the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

This way, if we have the resource base, it is only a question of our decision to act and exploiting our potential. We must not lose more time.

 source: Living in Peru