Bioprospecting in Colombia

by Mariah Tso

Biodiversity remains a largely unexplored aspect of the world’s ecosystems. Since the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), access to and jurisdiction over biological resources is now considered under the control of each State. Additionally, developing countries use bioprospecting, “the systematic pursuit, classification and research of new sources of chemical compounds, genes, proteins and other products that make up biological diversity and which have real or potential economic value”, to be scientifically and technologically competitive. Guiza et al. (2013) examine the effectiveness of bioprospecting policies in Colombia and the compliance of those policies with international treaties and guidelines. The authors examined the use of biological resource and genetic resource permits and how these permits have affected research groups in the field. They found that bioprospecting has become more common in the last few years, however the number of permits does not match the number of projects, suggesting missing information and possible illegal activities. In short, regulations have generated negative impacts for scientific research and that there is still no clear policy to promote biodiversity research and knowledge.

The authors note that restrictive legislation regarding access to a country’s biological and genetic resources stem from concerns over biopiracy, or what some call ‘bioimperalism’, and the inequitable distribution of benefits that arise from these practices. However, some countries view their natural wealth as opportunities to strengthen their scientific and technological capabilities to promote national growth and development. In 2009, Colombia implemented the Conpes document to promote a national policy on biodiversity research. However, Decision 391 of this document has impeded the development of biodiversity research activities and has led to a current state of illiteracy on biodiversity.

In order to illustrate the effectiveness of such policies and rules governing bioprospecting activities for scientific purposes in Colombia, the authors collected applications from various records between January 2008 and March 2013. Suarez et. al. found that the combination of a lack of clear guidelines, unfamiliarity with the rules, and inconsistent interpretations of the procedures and requirements by both officers and researchers of the research permits impeded any progress towards gaining and using more of the country’s biodiversity. The authors also found that representatives from environmental authorities lacked knowledge, expertise, and general administrative skills necessary for rules to be effective, and that sanctions and limitations provided by law were not enforced. Furthermore, missing and outdated data hindered a fully comprehensive assessment. There was also a lack of communication and coordination between environmental authorities and the National Department of Science and Technology, the entity responsible for implementing research-promoting policies and enforcing the requirements of research permits. The authors suggest strengthening the infrastructures and competencies of these entities in order to address current challenges.

The study also revealed an inordinate amount of time for permit approval. Only 2% of permits were approved within 30 days, with most taking more than 8 months. The highest percentage (43%) took between 20 and 65 months to receive approval. This extreme delay in granting permits proved detrimental to research undertakings by stalling the process. Deadlines were met in less than 4% of the cases and 75% of cases took 20 times the estimated time. Throughout the research period, primary bioprospecting activities increased by 10% whereas commercial activities decreased by 10%. The authors stipulate that this decrease suggests that regulation discourages industrial applications. The highest number of study permits was granted in 2011 (32%) and the lowest in 2012 (4%). Only 5% of research permits were specified for genetic resources. The authors noted that fauna and flora were most often studied leaving bacteria, viruses and fungi least studied in the country, as they are globally. Only 27% of applications were accepted. The most common limitations cited for rejection were vulnerability of ecosystems’ structure, adverse effects on human health or cultural identity, and endangered status or rarity of research subjects. The authors found that these combined factors strongly discouraged scientific research in the country interfering with the country’s duty to promote biodiversity awareness as established in Decision 391 and the Nagoya Protocol. They estimate the informal bioprospecting exceeds 70%.

Suarez, L.G., Camargo, D.R.B., 2013. Bioprospecting in Colombia. Universitas Scientiarum 18, 153-164.

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