North Texas Daily

Biopiracy: A threat to the natural world

Biopiracy: A threat to the natural world

February 22
11:00 2018

Imagine you are a member of a small tribe in a remote part of the world.

You are hiking through a treacherous pass in search of a particular root your shaman ensures will restore your mother’s health. As you arrive at the small grove said to be home to the healing root, you notice the entirety of the plant has been ripped up from the earth and taken, and with it your chance to heal your mother.

Many indigenous people have found themselves in this situation.

Outsiders to the tribe come to sacred lands and steal entire populations of species only to ship them home and have them processed for their medicinal value.

These thieves are known as biopirates or, more formally, bioprospectors.

Biopiracy is defined as taking plants or other biological resources from a country or group of people and patenting the end product without having given compensation or recognition to neither the country nor the indigenous people responsible for its actual discovery.

Biopirates delve into natural settings that are hosts to a variety of healing plants.

They are known to take the entirety of a plant, regardless of whether or not all parts of the plant have healing properties.

It is true that indigenous people harvest these plants for use as well, however, they take only what is needed and leave enough so the plants may regenerate. Often, the people will even leave gifts for the plant as a thank you for its generosity.

When healing plant species are removed from tribal lands, the tribe loses an essential source of medicine. This will often result in casualties as finding new sources of the plant or similar plants can take a long time and may require a dangerous journey through the wild.

The issue with biopiracy does not solely lie in the fact that little, and often no credit is given to those who are deserving, but rather that the exploitation of these resources is a matter of life and death for these marginalized people.

Obtaining ancient knowledge and turning it into a profit is a practice that absolutely must be rebuked. While there are companies and organizations working to fight against bioprospectors and the entities by whom they are employed, this practice still occurs and continues to take advantage of underrepresented populations.

The threat of biopiracy is not limited to plants used in healing. This threat extends to various plants with various uses. For example, the neem tree, a tropical plant hailing from India and surrounding areas, is harvested for its insect repelling nature.

The chemical made by the tree, called azadirachtin, is used in all sorts of chemical bug repellents. This tree, like many others, suffers from over-exploitation, which threatens its continued existence.

The ugly truth behind biopiracy is that groups of humans aim to take an aspect of nature and lay claim to it. Profit is made and the resource becomes increasingly difficult to obtain.

The anthropocentric nature of humans tends to help us forget that we, too, are animals. As animals, we have no right to steal any part of the natural world from other organisms. As every living thing hails from the same earth, we have a natural right, not a privilege, to share in the miracles of nature.

If you are interested in learning more about biopiracy or the efforts to inhibit the practice, check out the African Centre for biosafety and the ETC Group, both of which have a plethora of information available on the topic.

Featured Image: Illustration by Gabby Evans

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Sean Rainey

Sean Rainey

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