Intellectual Property Rights and Ethics in Ethnobotanical Research

Intellectual Property Rights and Ethics in Ethnobotanical Research

Before I became deeply embedded in the sphere of environmental policy, I used to be a chemical ecologist who spent two summers researching the Costa Rican and Ecuadorian tropics.  Yesterday, I decided it was time to go back to my “roots,” and attend a session of the International Society of Tropical Forests conference.  I landed in a workshop on Intellectual Property Rights and Ethics led by New York Botanical Garden’s Ina Vandebroek, who is an ethnomedical research specialist.

Ina’s work, particularly in Bolivia, involves close interaction with communities who have a lot of local knowledge about plant and tree species endemic to their areas. The knowledge of medicinal plants, in particular, is of potential interest and value to pharmaceutical companies who may stand to profit from discovering a new drug or chemical compound.

Patent law is tricky with regards to local knowledge and pharmaceutical companies who may spend billions of dollars in R&D to develop a drug.  While pharmaceutical companies can’t directly patent a plant or a species that has some sort of medicinal application, they can patent a type of innovation to extraction or novel use.

There are many issues that arise. First, there is a question of ethics, as most of the plant species and germplasm exists in the South, whereas the bioprospectors mainly arise from the North. Therefore an imbalance is created by which there is fear of biopiracy – the commercialization of plants or genetic plant material without fair compensation to the local communities who have possessed knowledge of medicinal plant applications for centuries.

Second, amongst the research community of which Ina is a member, there is fear that biopiracy will negatively impact research.  There is a real concern amongst researchers who work in these communities that publication of a plant species demonstrating medicinal benefits will then be commercialized without due compensation.  Such a consequence could discourage researchers from contributing this knowledge to the public domain.  To prevent biopiracy from occurring, Ina and her colleagues will often publish local field guides for the communities themselves to use so that the knowledge is preserved, but make it very difficult for outsiders to access.  People who desire the guidebook need to contact the communities directly to acquire a copy of the field guide, making the local communities the controllers of the knowledge.

While large pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Pfizer have all but abandoned the idea that the next “blockbuster” drug will come from local knowledge of a plant or gene from the Southern tropics, Ina says that the real gray area is now from functional food, homeopathic, and herbal companies who can skirt the onerous food and drug testing large pharmaceutical companies have to undergo. These companies can quickly develop herbal supplements or other products much faster and more easily than the Mercks and Pfizers, standing to threaten both academic research and local knowledge.