"Traditional owners 'should be paid'&quo

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Posted by Lils from ? ( on Thursday, October 03, 2002 at 5:12PM :

Nature 419, 423 (3 October 2002)

Traditional owners 'should be paid'


Traditional knowledge can provide cheap leads for pharmaceutical companies looking for new drugs. Now a model law, unveiled at a conference last month on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, could help to ensure that the indigenous communities involved are properly rewarded.

The law requires any company seeking to exploit traditional knowledge and culture to obtain the permission of the group that first developed it. Applications would be made through regional cultural authorities, which would be in charge of identifying and alerting the traditional owners. The owners would then have the right to reject the application or to negotiate an authorization agreement.

"It is a matter of self-respect for indigenous communities that their ownership of indigenous knowledge and culture is acknowledged in a fair way," says Kamal Puri, a lawyer at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who co-authored the law.

The scheme is a response to cases in which drugs and cosmetic products have been derived from traditionally used plants without benefit to the indigenous community. For example, smokebush (Conospermum spp.) has been used to develop an anti-AIDS drugs by the Australian pharmaceutical company Amrad, based in Richmond, Victoria. Amrad obtained licences from the government of Western Australia and the US National Cancer Institute, where the plant's anti-HIV activity was identified, but neither contract requires payment to the aboriginal Nyoongah people, who use smokebush for medicinal purposes. In contrast, the government of Western Australia is likely to receive royalties in excess of $100 million per year, says Puri, if Amrad successfully develops the drug.

"The Nyoongahs have used smokebush from time immemorial. Regrettably, no one has thought of providing any remuneration to those who first discovered the medicinal properties of the drug," says Puri.

The law was discussed by patent officials, lawyers and politicians from South Pacific states on 17 September. The government of Fiji has asked Puri for assistance in passing the law. Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga are considering following suit, although some small island states may lack the legal set-up to enact the law.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Lils
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