Joy As Pelargonium Patent Revoked

Sometimes small victories can mean a lot. I got an email this morning with the curious title, "Joy As Pelargonium Patent Revoked" - it may sound like a joke or a scam. It is not. It is the result of a long and tedious legal battle for the rights of South Africans to their traditional knowledge and heritage. Dr. Willmar Schwabe, a German doctor, applied for and was given a patent on a method to extract a substance found in the pelargonium. It is sold as a (popular) cough syrup by his company, Schwabe.

This may all have been fine and dandy if he had made more effort to share the benefits with the South Africans. It turns out that they have used the plant for a long time as a lung medicine, as part of the traditional healing practices in the region. What the Germans did is called "biopiracy" and is as old as colonialization itself, but the new patent rules under the World Trade Organization (called TRIPs) are making things even more difficult:

Nomtunzi Api, a representative from the Alice community, expressed elation in response to the revocation, “this is the first time that a patent is challenged successfully by Africans. It gives us hope for the future because the patent ends Schwabe’s monopoly over the use of our genetic resources and traditional knowledge.” According to Mariam Mayet of the ACB, “Patent systems are seriously flawed. It is inherently unfair that public interest NGOs should have to challenge patents, at enormous effort and expense, to bring about equity and justice in protecting resources and traditional knowledge from the South.”

This is relevant to the negotiations to be held in Nagoya in October this year, as countries meet for the COP10 conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol. The negotiations should finalize the so-called "Access and Benefit Sharing" regime, with rules for how to avoid biopiracy. Countries with potentially interesting plants should provide access to researchers, and they in turn should share the benefits with the donor country and the local community. The rules are tricky and full of loopholes, but a very important weapon against patent claims like the pelargonium case in Europe. The negotiations also aim to finalize how to preserve the biological diversity of areas with rare and unusual plants or animals, that need protection.

I am enjoying the workshop we are doing over at A Seed Japan, the NGO with several campaigns for the environment, in collaboration with Consumers Union of Japan. Thanks Kobayashi-san for the email this morning, it made my day!

Official website: CBD Access and Benefit Sharing
NGO: Edmonds Institute Report Out of Africa (pdf)

(Photo from the Umckaloabo website - note the South Africans against the silhouette of a huge, healthy tree, an evocative image...)


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