End biopiracy

The Union cabinet’s nod to India’s ratification of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources paves the way for the country to take meaningful leadership of the effort to prevent biopiracy. The Protocol seeks to ensure, among other things “fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.” As a country with immense biodiversity wealth and home to a vast bank of traditional knowledge and medicine systems that make use of natural resources, the issue of biopiracy is one that has been of serious concern to India for a while now. Its long-drawn and successful battle to prevent patents on neem and turmeric from being filed in the US are well-known.  Now as host nation to a UN Convention on Biodiversity, India has a special responsibility towards tackling bio-piracy. Its ratification of the Nagoya Protocol will empower it to urge more countries to ratify it.

A country must have a strong domestic regulatory framework to draw maximum benefit from the Nagoya Protocol. Although India enacted the Biodiversity Act ten years ago, experts warn that the country’s access and benefit sharing regime is concerned more with facilitating access to its biodiversity wealth rather than securing benefit sharing for local communities. Without putting in place strong checks and balances, ratifying the Protocol would put the country’s tribal, agricultural and fishing communities – the real custodians of its biodiversity wealth – at risk of being looted, without compensation. The government must heed calls for amending the Biodiversity Act. In its present form it only requires ‘consultation’ with local communities, not their full prior informed consent.

India must act more robustly to protect its biodiversity whether from biopiracy or destruction by development projects. Its weak efforts to halt biopiracy is evident from the fact that the National Biodiversity Authority, which was set up to implement the Biodiversity Act, has fined just two individuals for smuggling genetic material out of the country over the past decade. Ratifying the Nagoya Protocol will not benefit the country if we do not put in place strong domestic laws to prevent biopiracy and ensure their implementation. India takes pride in being a treasure trove of biodiversity. This treasure will be looted and lost if we fail to prepare ourselves effectively to reap the benefits of the Nagoya Protocol.

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