The green gold trade

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2011, année des forêts : La bataille de l’or vert

With a volume estimated at about 20 billion dollars per year, trade in [endangered?] [animal?] species ranks third in illegal trades behind those of weapons and narcotics. It includes the counterfeiting of dead-animal by-products, such as elephant ivory and tiger skins, and has become a significant threat to ecosystems. But the plundering of forests also extends to the fraudulent appropriation of traditional native knowledge, a practice called biopiracy: when a commercial business registers a patent for a molecule obtained from traditional knowledge.

There are numerous examples: quinine, an anti-malarial extracted from the bark of the Cinchona; the Neem tree native to India, whose fruit has anti-fungal properties; or emetine, used to induce vomiting for certain types of poisoning, which comes from the root of the Brazilian ipecacuanha plant.

The people who discovered these plants and at least some of their possible uses should receive part of the sometimes considerable benefits gained by the companies that market them. If this does not happen, a company that registers a patent based on the ancestral knowledge of a people has as good as taken possession of this knowledge.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro by 190 countries, states that access to biological and genetic resources must obtain the prior informed consent of the country or the indigenous people concerned. The two parties must also negotiate a contract to define the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the transformation of the plant into an end product.

But application of this text remains a complex matter; lawsuits are numerous and difficult for indigenous peoples, inadequately armed in today’s legal world. All the more so in that their culture is often based on oral transmission and they do not have the written elements that would enable them to prove the anteriority of their discoveries.

Extrait du livre « Des forêts et des hommes » rédigé par la rédaction de GoodPlanet à l’occasion de l’année internationale des forêts et disponible aux éditions de la Martinière.

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