Bio-piracy in the Amazon

Every year in the heart of the Amazon more than 100,000 people cram into the tiny hamlet of Presidente Figueiredo and have a three-day festival in honour of a jungle fruit.

Leaves of the Cupuacu are being patented by global companies

The exotic tangerine-coloured Cupuacu (an Indian name pronounced Cup-oo-as-oo) is rich in vitamins, minerals, fats and fatty acids. While widely known for its nutritive, stimulant and tonic properties, it is also commercially used in more than 40 products including ice cream, soap, medicine and chocolate.

“It’s crazy, there are people sleeping in the roads,” said Francisco da Silva, a local bar owner, describing the annual scene.

Pouring in from all over the state of Amazonia, people come to the festival every April. They jam the narrow streets for the party and get drunk on cachaca, the rum made from sugarcane.

Next year’s event, however, the 14th annual Cupuacu festival promises to be a bit more subdued.

International patents

Two Japanese companies, Asahi Foods and Cupuacu International have patented the name for its use in US, European and Japanese markets.

Moreover, Britain’s The Body Shop has won exclusive rights to the extract of Cupuacu, or Theobroma grandiflorum.

While there are many stringent laws to stop bio-piracy, the smuggling of indigenous species to other countries, it seems that nothing is being done to effectively stop legal looting carried out by multinational companies of the richest and most diverse region on Earth.

“It’s a robbery,” says Roberto Diniz Viera, finance secretary for Presidente Figueiredo. “It’s like us Brazilians going to Japan and patenting an electronic component. It’s an international scandal what is happening. It’s ours but now we have to pay to use the name.”

“The case of Cupuacu is an offence to our national sovereignty. It’s like taking away a word from the dictionary”

Luiz Otavio Beaklini,
National Institute of Industrial Property

Cupuacu is not alone. Asahi Foods this year has also patented acerola, a large red berry rich in vitamin C, and Acai, the rich purple-coloured fruit pulped into a thick drink that has become particularly popular with surfers in Rio de Janeiro for its stamina-giving properties.

The race is now between Brazilian authorities and top lawyers of international firms to log their claims in the battle for exclusive use or preservation.

Over exploitation

Many species previously exploited are now running the risk of extinction. Pau-Rosa, or Rosewood, the prime material of the perfume Chanel No 5, is under threat.

Two-thirds of the most valuable wood in Brazil, mahogany, is exported to the US and Britain, all completely within the law, despite the decimation of the species.

The popular Brazilian magazine IstoE last week gave away a mahogany seed on every cover, in a plea to readers to plant more and highlighted the dangers of what it called “modern pirates”.

In many cases, Brazilians have to rely on foreign investment for research. The companies then patent the findings.

Bristol-Myers Sqibb funded studies into a Brazilian discovery that the venom of the Jaracaca snake can control hypertension. Myers-Sqibb now has control of a $2.5 billion market in Captopril and Brazil along with the rest of the world has to pay royalties.

Acai is renowned for its energy-boosting properties
Acai is renowned for its energy-boosting properties

Acai is renowned for its energy-
boosting properties

The list goes on.

The Canadian laboratory Biolink has patented the active ingredient for the Bibiri seed for Aids drugs; International Medicine Corp has won the global rights to the use of the traditional Indian religious hallucinogen Ayahuasca.

Rocher Yves Vegetale patented Andiroba for cosmetics – even though it is used by Amazonians as an insect repellent.

Rich resources

The Amazon is a vast region, spanning nine countries covering 7% of the Earth’s surface. More than five of the region’s 7 million square kilometres are in Brazil.

The economic potential of the region is estimated to be about $1.45 trillion with oil, hydroelectric energy, mineral resources, plants and tourism.

“Where on the entire planet does there exist so much possibility to generate funds, work and happiness?” said Clayton Campanhola, director-president of the Brazilian business Embrapa.

Nothing is being done to effectively stop the legal looting carried out by multinational companies of the richest and most diverse region on Earth.

The Amazon contains half of the world’s biodiversity including an estimated 3000 species of fish and 5000 tree species. 

It is neither simple nor cheap to register the rights to each one. It is not easy for the under-resourced agency that protects the forest, Ibama, to stop the more traditional illicit methods of cultural robbery- theft under the cover of darkness.

The area is so vast and people so poor that corruption is rife.

“The case of Cupuacu is an offence to our national sovereignty. It’s like taking away a word from the dictionary,” said Luiz Otavio Beaklini of The National Institute of Industrial Property, INPI.

“Cupuacu is a natural material and cannot be a brand,” he said.

More than 400 Amazon organisations have protested against the patent and demanded it should be made void. This and other similar debates continue to be fought in the courts. Their outcome may yet determine the future owners of this region’s resources.

Source: Al Jazeera