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Curupira x Biopiracy

Technical Cooperation Agreement between BioAmazônia and Novartis

On May 29, the Brazilian Association for the Sustainable Use of the Biodiversity of the Amazon Region (BioAmazônia), the operational arm of the Brazilian Molecular Ecology Program for the Sustainable Use of the Biodiversity of the Amazon Region (Probem) of the Ministry of Science and Technology, signed a Technical Cooperation Agreement with the Swiss multinational Novartis Pharma AG.

The agreement gives Novartis exclusive rights for the next ten years to the prospecting and sale of drugs and pharmaceutical products deriving from microorganisms and plants in the Legal Amazon ( The Legal Amazon, created for tax incentives  covers all the Amazon plus areas that surround it). The agreement drew more protests than the signing in 1999 of a similar agreement between Extracta (an institution associated with the overseas group Xenova Discovery, that operates in prospecting for drugs) and the British multinational GlaxoWellcome.

In the scientific community, opinions differ. Some researchers consider the opportunity  “not to be lost”, since we will finally be turning the slogan “biodiversity is this country’s richest resource” into dollars. Others consider that the value of the agreement, around US$ 3 million over three years plus 1% of any royalties, so low that it would only make sense if its purpose were to encourage passing the bill regulating Access for Genetic Resources. A third group lines up behind the NGOs, part of Technical-Scientific Board of BioAmazônia and the Ministry of the Environment, in repudiating the agreement. In my opinion, it is essential to begin prospecting Brazilian flora and fauna, because it is through the benefits deriving from their sustainable exploitation that we will change our economic situation. Nature conservation will cease being seen as an obstacle to development and will become the foundation of a new paradigm, associating the sustainable use of natural resources with improvements to humankind’s quality of life. The question is not, therefore, whether we should or not encourage bioprospecting but rather how we should go about it.

Until the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed in 1992, access to genetic resources was free, since biodiversity was considered a patrimony of humankind. After the CBD, the signatory countries began to have rights over their biological resources and the duty to watch over their conservation and sustainable use. They began to have the obligation to regulate access to its biodiversity, ensuring a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits  from the use of these resources or products deriving from them. The signatories also undertook to respect the knowledge of traditional of indigenous communities, and guarantee them a return on their commercial use.

The agreement between Bio-Amazônia and Novartis is illegal because it infringes an international convention to which Brazil is a signatory. Failing to comply with the CBD and with no Brazilian legislation, we have no guarantee that the agreement safeguards the interests of the Brazilian people.

The urgency of the matter contrasts with the slowness of its passage through Congress, where senator Marina Silva’s bill has been under discussion since 1995. Under these circumstances, it would come as no surprise if a provisional measure were arbitrarily issued to give legal backing to this agreement and thus deprive Brazilians of the possibility of seeing the matter discussed and agreed in their parliament.

Carlos Alfredo Joly is a biologist, professor at Unicamp and coordinator of the Programa Biota -FAPESP 

Note.: This article was written before Provisional Measure 2,052 of June 29, 2000, was issued.

* In Brazilian popular folklore, the Curupira is a deity that protects the fauna and flora