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Quote of the Day - God bless the roots! Body and soul are one. - Theodore Roethke

Who Owns The World?

In Peru, indigenous Quechua Indians have for hundreds of years used Maca root to increase the flow of oxygen to blood, largely to deal with the lack of oxygen at their high altitudes.  The root, especially when certain elements are extracted in alcohol (moonshine), produce the "side effect" of increasing libido due to the increased blood flow and oxygen. 

Given the runaway success of Viagra (if measured only by the number of emails that flood the Internet), you can understand why one U.S.-based company was more than happy to "discover" the root's propensities.  That company, PureWorld Botanicals in South Hackensack, NJ, quickly patented the derivative product.  That patent, however, flies in the face of the 1192 Convention on Biological Diversity, developed at  the Earth Summit in Brazil.  That Convention entitles nations to a share of the profits from substances yielded by their flora and fauna, obviously excluding Peru here given PureWorld's patent.  Some 188 countries ratified the Convention.  Notably absent is the United States as a signatory.

This Associated Press article (free registration required) notes that a "2005 U.N. University report concluded that 62 percent of all cancer drugs were created from bioprospecting discoveries."  For example, "the venom of a deadly sea snail found off the coast of the Philippines led Elan Pharmaceuticals Inc. to develop the painkiller Prialt, which U.S. regulators approved in 2004.  The key ingredient in the breast cancer drug Taxol owned by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. is taken from the bark of the yew tree, and Wyeth's kidney transplant drug Rapamune comes from Easter Island soil," according to the article's author, Rick Veccio.  Examples of other substances abound, from penicillin to quinine. 

Interestingly, quinine comes from the Cinchona tree, which is featured prominently on the Peruvian flag.  You may remember that quinine was developed from the bark of the Cinchona tree, which was taken back to Europe in 1630 by Jesuit priests and largely cured malaria.  The tree remains on Peru's flag as a reminder that it did not share in the wealth created from this "discovery."

Peru is now trying to follow U.S. patent law and overturn the issuance of PureWorld's patent by claiming that patenting the company's alcohol extraction process is barred by the prior art of the moonshine derivation practiced by Quechua Indians for centuries.  They charge that U.S. bioprospecting robs them of the rewards of their natural resources.  Others, according to the AP article, claim " 'PureWorld, which did all of this work, found compounds that nobody knew existed before,' said [Chris] Kilham, a professor of ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst."

For their part, the Peruvians believe "the root is nature's bounty and belongs to everyone and to no one in particular." 

Posted by J. Craig Williams on 1/6/2007 at 15:34 Comments (0)


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