Peru's Inca capital slams door shut on biopirates

Indigenous people in Peru are claiming victory today in their efforts to keep natural resources they have protected for generations out of the hands of outsiders who want to exploit them without sharing the benefits.

News, 14 January 2009

They are celebrating that the Regional Government of Cusco, an important biodiversity-rich region and stronghold of the former Inca Empire, has passed a law outlawing biopiracy.

The term describes the way corporations or researchers can access native species and potentially patent them or their genes for commercial gain without seeking consent from, or sharing benefits with, local people whose traditions have protected the species for centuries.

The law was published in "El Peruano", the official newspaper of the Peruvian government today (14 January).

"Worldwide, national governments and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization have failed to protect indigenous people's traditional knowledge and associated genetic resources from biopirates," says Alejandro Argumedo, Director of Asociacion ANDES, a Cusco-based indigenous organisation.

"The new law enacted by the regional government of Cusco is a good example of how local governments can create the appropriate legal and institutional framework, as well as the mechanisms to implement it, to ensure that biopiracy does not prey on the creativity of indigenous peoples and local communities."

The law gives indigenous communities a legal framework to use their customary laws to develop and implement ways to protect local resources, including registers of biodiversity and protocols for granting access to it.

"Peru has long been a hot spot for biopirates seeking easy prey," says Dr Michel Pimbert, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a long-term partner of Asociacion ANDES. "Biopiracy of traditional knowledge and associated native crops, medicinal plants and microorganisms has been common, depriving poor indigenous people and farming communities of their ancestral rights to natural resources."

"This law ensures that there is an equal playing field between the holders of traditional knowledge and associated biocultural resources and those seeking genetic resources for commercial applications," adds Pimbert.

"It strengthens community institutions and their capacity to manage access to their cultural and biological assets and to inform local authorities of any transgressions so that they can play a critical role in controlling biopiracy."