Pacific Islanders Preyed on by Bio-Pirates

Pacific Islanders Preyed on by Bio-Pirates
Stephen Leahy


BROOKLIN, Canada, Mar 20 (IPS) - The Pacific region has long been a
favourite target of gene hunters, unethical bio-researchers and
"patent bottom trawlers" looking to profit from its unique flora,
fauna -- and human beings.

Pacific Islanders have had their genes patented against their will.
T-cells from the Hagahai tribe in Papua New Guinea can be purchased
today on the internet for 216 dollars.

Cook Islanders were nearly the subjects of an experiment to transplant
pig parts into humans in 2002. Had it proceeded, the U.S. would have
labelled the Cook Islands a "rogue state" over fears about the
potential spread of virulent pig retroviruses in humans, according to
a new book launched by co-publishers Call of the Earth Llamado de la
Tierra, and the United Nations University.

Call of the Earth Llamado de la Tierra is an independent indigenous
initiative on intellectual property rights and traditional knowledge.

"The book is a catalogue of unethical experiences in the Pacific
region," said Aroha Mead, a senior lecturer at Victoria University in
Wellington, New Zealand, and co-editor of the book "Pacific Genes and
Life Patents", launched at the university Tuesday.

"There's been a lot of bad behaviour here. Many researchers from the
outside have a colonial attitude," Mead told IPS from Wellington.

An absence of regulation and widespread naiveté regarding the latest
genetic technologies and intellectual patent law has made the region a
major target for commercial "gene hunters" or bio-prospectors, she
says, likening gene pirates to deep-sea trawlers that scoop up
everything in their path -- and then claim intellectual property
rights to anything they think might have commercial value in the future.

"Genes are a key resource of the new world bio-economy and our
isolation and diversity makes the Pacific Islands particularly
attractive," writes contributor Te Tika Mataiapo - Dorice Reid, a
traditional chief from the Cook Islands.

The modern bio-economy crashes head on with traditional cultural and
spiritual values in the South Pacific, Reid adds.

One of the first collisions was in the early 1990s. Without informing
individuals, their communities or governments, the U.S. government
filed patents on DNA cells taken from the Hagahai tribe in Papua New
Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The patent application was eventually
dropped, but cell lines derived from their unique DNA remain in use
and for sale.

The region retains strong traditional cultural beliefs, which means
that even if individuals had consented, the genetic material donated
would reflect an entire extended family's genetic makeup and their
permission would be needed as well.

"In South Pacific cultures, a plant is a living ancestor -- and even a
drop of human blood retains its life spirit after it has been
collected for medical research or synthesised and specific DNA
qualities isolated," said A.H. Zakri, director of the United Nations
University's Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies.

"We hope this book helps advance international understanding" of these
deeply-held values, Zakri said in a statement.

"Plants and animals are not seen as mere physical or biological
entities but also as embodiment of ancestral spirits," writes
co-editor Steven Ratuva of Fiji, a senior fellow at the University of
the South Pacific.

In Fijian cosmology, the genetic materials that make up plants and
animals are considered part of the circle of life and are sacrosanct.
Moreover, medicinal plants are considered common property and
available for everyone

Patents have also been taken out on extracts from many plants
Islanders have used for thousands of years, including Kava, Taro,
Canarium Nut and others.

"Patents are not a tool of humanitarian research. They are a tool of
commerce and exclusive property rights and serve to give signals to
others 'stay away, they're mine. I own them'," Mead writes.

Such action violates Islanders' traditional values of "pono" and
"tika" (to act appropriately), where everyone benefits from the use of
a plant, including individuals, their families, and communities.

Pacific Islanders suffer from very high rates of Type-2 diabetes, and
in 2002, some researchers claimed that transplanting pancreas cells
from pigs into diabetics offered a potential cure. Unable to properly
assess the proposed experiment, the Cook Island government agreed. The
international medical community objected and then local indigenous
leaders protested, writes Reid.

Pacific Island states generally have great difficulty staying abreast
of developments in biotechnology and developing legislation to cope
with social, legal, and ethical implications of the new technologies,
she says.

"It is very difficult for poor communities to resist research
proposals that promise free health services and other things in
exchange for blood or DNA samples," says Mead.

One solution is to create a regional Pacific intellectual property
office to assess patent and trademark applications, informed by
Pacific model laws and responses. Such an office could enable patent
application assessments to be carried out in a more critical manner
with regard to Pacific cultural heritage.

The Cook Islands have just set up a research office to screen all
research proposals, says Mead.

"That's a good step forward. I hope more governments will do this,"
she said.

Patents and biotechnology are not going to help solve the problems
facing the Pacific region, she and others in the book note. Poverty,
poor health care and rising sea levels with climate change are among
the main challenges the region faces.

"We don't need any more researchers coming here just to be the first
to discover something," Mead concluded. (END/2007)

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