Biopirates loot the Amazon


The international community is used to worrying about the despoilation of the Amazon jungle by loggers. But what the world is only just waking up to is that this vast South American wilderness is now facing a new, equally insidious threat - from biopirates, who pillage the jungle for its exotic plants.

Yet those accused of plundering the Amazon are not members of criminal gangs, but respectable scientists and multinational pharmaceutical firms acting within the law. You get some idea of the importance of the Amazon as an untapped resource from the following. In 1995, 118 of the top 150 prescription drugs in the US were derived from plants or animals. Yet the proportion of plant species investigated for their medical properties was estimated at just 1,150 out of 365,000. On average, one important new drug has been produced for every 125 species studied, whereas the equivalent rate for chemical compounds is one in 10,000. No wonder that some have compared the rush to investigate the Amazon's plants to drilling for oil or the gold-rushes of the 19th century - with the ultimate "strike" being the discovery of a cure for cancer. According to Robert Mendelsohn, a professor of forestry at Yale University, and Michael J. Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, more than 300 potentially life-saving drugs await detection in the Amazon. They value the discovery of these species at £125 billion.

In the light of this, it is no surprise to find out that 125 organisations now have pharmaceutical research outposts in the Brazilian Amazon. They range from pharmaceutical giants such as Glaxo Wellcome and Novartis; cosmetics companies such as Cognis and Aveda; to smaller operations specialising in "natural" remedies; and institutions such as the US National Cancer Institute, the Smithsonian Institute and Cambridge University. Between them, they are investing millions of pounds in pursuit of the prize that almost everyone believes is out there somewhere: an Amazonian wonder-drug that could earn its owner billions.

With such potential, corners are being cut. Sergio Lauria Ferreira, the chief prosecuting lawyer in the state of Amazonas, says that, since 1995, his legal team has seen a steady rise in the number of people accused of plant "trafficking". If the charge sounds vague, that's because it is. Brazil's laws governing the removal and export of plants are full of loopholes, and new legislation is currently being rushed through parliament to clarify the situation. According to Ferreira, the country has only recently become aware of the real value of the Amazon's genetic material. "It is a new thing for Brazil. We've just realised what is happening. And that's why we must act fast to limit the damage caused by these people." Three years ago, Ferreira opened a public inquiry into "biopiracy"; he hopes to publish the inquiry's findings later this year. "The inquiry's research shows that we have a growing problem with plant smuggling. We estimate that around 20,000 individual plant samples are taken illegally out of the country each year.

"Scientific laboratories rarely do the smuggling themselves. They generally take the information from third parties, who often are not explicit in explaining the origin of the material. This makes things very difficult to prove when it comes to charging people." Jose Leland Barossa, chief inspector for the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, says that scientists seeking the treasures of the Amazon rely on local indigenous people to gather information.

"The scientists congregate in small frontier towns where there are lots of indigenous people," he claims. "Then they ask the Indians what they would do if they had a headache, muscle pains or a bad stomach.

"The local people then take the scientists into the jungle and show them which plant they would use to cure those symptoms. The scientists pay the Indians a little money and then take the plant back to their labs. There, they discover the principle by which the plant works and sell their preliminary research on to the pharmaceutical companies for development." Yet the extent to which such scientists are acting illegally, or even immorally, is far from clear. One recent case, which shows how easy it is for scientists to sell the Amazon's intellectual treasures abroad without the authorities' knowledge, involved Ruedger von Reininghaus, the Austrian-born president of a Brazilian nongovernmental organisation called Selvaviva. Von Reininghaus had worked with some local Indians for more than 20 years, and during that time had catalogued many of their traditional remedies. In 1997, with the help of the Indians, he began to make what he called a register of natural remedies, cataloguing which plants the tribes used, where they grew and how to prepare and administer the herbal remedies. He then sent this information to the pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson, Bayer and Ciba-Geigy, among others, claiming that the indigenous people he was working with wanted to sell their tribal knowledge. He added that they would be prepared to hand over the patent of any plant to a company willing to pay a negotiable price. Von Reininghaus was accused of biopiracy by local indigenous organisations, but a subsequent public inquiry found that his intentions appeared honourable. He wanted to raise money for a school in the poor Indian community, and he was attempting to do so in the only way available to him. He insisted that the Indian community supported him in this, although the Indian Missionary Council disagreed. Von Reininghaus was eventually fined, his NGO was closed down and he has since left Brazil. But the fear of biopiracy engendered by his case remains widespread. Nowhere is the ethical and legal minefield of drugs research in the Amazon better illustrated than in the case of the Wapishana Indians. For the past year, this northern Amazonian tribe has been in dispute with Conrad Gorinsky, a former biochemist at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, in London. Gorinsky, the son of a Pole and South Amerindian, spent years living and working with the Wapishana community. After spending thousands of pounds of his own money researching plants used by the indigenous natives, he registered two patents in Europe and the US.

The first of these comes from what the tribe call the greenheart tree (octotea rodiaei). Gorinsky has named the substance "rupununines", in reference to a river that runs through the region. According to the patent's description, the component is an efficient anti-fever chemical and may prevent the recurrence of diseases such as malaria. Gorinsky's second patent comes from the cunani bush (clibatium sylvestre). Registered by the chemist as polyacetylenes, it is said to be a powerful stimulant for the nervous system. These discoveries, argues Gorinsky, are the result of a lifetime's work decoding the active ingredients in traditional Wapishana remedies. It is a process, he says, in which he has made all the intellectual efforts, adding that he has no plans to profit from his work by producing the plant compounds commercially.

DESPITE this, many tribal members are still unhappy. Evelyn Gomes says her people have used the greenheart tree for generations. "We use it in emergencies to stop bleeding and prevent infection. It can also be used as a contraceptive. My mother told me and before that, her mother told her". The cunani bush, she says, is also important to the tribe, who believe that fish should be hunted without spears or nets. "The men soak the leaves of the cunani and make a kind of ball from it which they then throw into the water. This stops the fish from breathing, so they start to jump out and die. All you have to do then is pick them up and eat." No one is trying to stop the Wapishana from continuing to use the cunani bush in these ways. But, argues Gomes, "this knowledge has always been with the Wapishana. It's part of our heritage and is now being taken from us without any payment". After mounting a campaign, the Wapishana people managed to overturn Gorinsky's patent of the cunani bush. The battle over the intellectual rights of the greenheart, however, continues. At the heart of the campaign against biopiracy is the fear that Brazil will lose out on the vast royalties that might accrue should even one plant be patented and then manufactured as a wonder-drug. This concern is forcing Brazil's slow-moving government bureaucracy into belated action. Last year, Congress rushed through a temporary legal measure in response to public outrage over a contract with the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis. The contract gave Novartis the patent rights to 10,000 plants and fungi it discovered in the Amazon, for what seemed to be the knockdown price of £2.7 million. It also allowed them to test their plant samples in laboratories outside Brazil, which, critics said, made it nearly impossible to stop illegal smuggling. Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth's Amazon programme, believes the continuing lack of permanent legislation regulating scientific exploration in the jungle is allowing biopiracy to thrive.

"Each year, 24 million cubic litres of timber is illegally removed from the Amazon. Genetic material is much easier to take because it is smaller, so I have no doubt about the extent of biopiracy." Such suspicions are making life increasingly uncomfortable for respectable research companies. Glaxo Wellcome, the British pharmaceutical giant, claims that a hostile Brazilian public is hampering its Amazon research programmes. "We have submitted all our proposals to the government for approval," says Dr Paulo Braga, the company's chief medical officer. "And yet people are still wary, because there's a lot of concern in the public arena. Our company has been doing research in the Asian rain forests for years without any problems, but in Latin America things are different. They're much more nationalistic and have so many misconceptions about the way science works." Despite this, Glaxo Wellcome began its first Amazonian research programme in 1999. The £2.25 million project will last three years, and will analyse some 30,000 plant species. "Brazil is a hot spot of biodiversity," says Dr Braga. "It's definitely one of the great untapped regions for pharmaceutical companies, not least because we could discover something not present in any other part of the world. "There is a huge suspicion here about what pharmaceuticals are doing. We've been under great criticism in Brazil because there's no discussion between scientists and the government, and that's why we've got so many problems. They just don't understand our work." The Amazon's treasures are becoming increasingly valuable as more people begin to realise their true worth. But it is essential to make a difference between the criminal gangs and scientists. While the former operate solely to make money for themselves, the researchers' work (even if they are acting on the fringes of the law) may benefit everyone. It is understandable that Brazil should be concerned about losing money. But if a company were to find in the Amazon a cheap, effective cure for AIDS or cancer, then the whole world could benefit. Smeraldi can see other benefits too. He is one of the few environmentalists thinking the unthinkable. He believes that, if the current acquisition of Brazil's botanic patrimony was not only regulated but legalised, it could actually save the rain forest. "At the moment, we are not only giving the nation's plants away, we are also losing a real reason for people to engage in conserving the forest.

"If local people were encouraged to look after all the genetic material, and sell a portion on to interested groups in a legal and financially beneficial manner, then they would have a real economic incentive to preserve the jungle. At the moment they don't have one and that's why there's so many problems." It's quite a vision - and if it becomes a reality, the scientists accused of biopiracy today might be hailed as saviours of the Amazon tomorrow.