Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For a related story on African protests of industrial countries plundering resources, see an earlier story in the Albion Monitor.]

South America Wants End to Seed Theft

by Humberto Marquez

(IPS) CARACAS -- Latin America, which boasts 60 per cent of the world's plant species, is beginning to say no to the plundering of its seeds by the North.

The skewed exchange of resources between the Old and the New Worlds that existed during colonial times has remained virtually unchanged.

Colored cotton from Peru is about to be patented in the United States, where it is already being produced -- and the rural people who maintained the species for centuries have seen no benefits.

An Australian researcher on his way home from Maracaibo, Venezuela, stuffed a few samples of a weed growing along the landing strips into his pockets -- and the plant is now grown as summer forage for livestock in Australia.

"But if we want a new kind of grass to fatten up our livestock, we have to import the seeds and pay for the technological development of the species," said Antonio Leone, director of development with the Latin American Economic System (LAES).

Home to more than half of the world's species of flora and fauna

LAES advocates a permanent forum for Latin America and the Caribbean to facilitate consultation and coordination regarding the use of and access to genetic resources, an idea that authorities from throughout the region discussed in Bogota, Colombia last week.

That was a preparatory meeting for the fourth international technical conference on genetic resources organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to be held in June in Leipzig, Germany.

The Leipzig conference is to come up with a plan of action for research into, the preservation and use of and access to biological resources. It will be a golden opportunity for Latin America to stress the weight of its biological wealth.

"A single tree in Colombia's Darien jungle can have as much biodiversity as all Switzerland," said a Venezuelan expert in property rights, Francisco Astudillo.

The Andean mountain range and the Amazon jungle are home to more than half of the world's species of flora and fauna. To date, some 438,000 species of plants of economic and social interest have been registered in the region.

"We should be trading biological resources for technology and capital"

During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Latin America pushed for the adoption of a treaty on biodiversity, which recognizes national sovereignty over biological resources while establishing the need for conservation.

It is also designed to eliminate the idea that governments and companies can freely exploit such resources.

"The first thing we need is an inventory of our genetic wealth, something that is difficult to carry out due to a lack of resources," said Leone. "A laboratory in an industrialized country can do a complete screening of a plant. We don't have many such labs in the region."

But even if such laboratories existed, the process would be extremely costly. "The research that precedes the launching of a new micine extracted from a plant can cost $250 million," Astudillo said.

He stressed that Latin America's position should not be interpreted as an effort to prevent the use of its genetic resources for the good of humanity, but rather "as a quest for sharing in the benefits."

Latin America and Africa "are demanding that the benefits from genetic development of our biodiversity reach the indigenous and rural caretakers, as well as the developing countries who offer such resources," Astudillo added.

"It's not a question of an exchange of biodiversity between us and the North, which would prolong the idea that biological diversity is free for the taking. We should be trading biological resources for the technology and capital needed to develop it."

As an example of such cooperation, Astudillo mentioned an agreement between Merck, a U.S. laboratory, and the Costa Rican Institute of Biodiversity to share the labor as well as the benefits reaped from the search for resources in the Central American country.

The North will continue its search for new genetic resources, based on its own goals for agricultural growth, such as a 1.8 ton/year per hectare increase in corn production by the year 2005, and one ton a year for potatoes.

Leone and Astudillo stressed that to meet demands for food, Latin America -- with nearly 200 million people living below the poverty line -- needs to come up with a strategy that would make them co-owners of the highest-yield species.

The Andean Pact nations -- Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela -- are working on common norms that would regulate access to and the use of its plant resources, and the idea has also been taken up by Brazil, Guyana and Surinam within the framework of the Amazon Parliament.

"It is important for Andean and Amazon countries," which have overlapping areas of biodiversity, "to establish shared norms to avoid unfair competition," said Astudillo.

Experts agree that Latin America is in need of a regional plan, under the slogan "no more free seeds," to improve the use of its genetic resources in order to fuel development.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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