Biopiracy: In the News

(biological theft by illegally collecting indigenous plants, microbes, enzymes, etc. by corporations who patent them for their own commercial use as defined at this bio unit page)

Kenya wants a share of the sales of a fabric softener that uses enzymes derived from its Lake Bogoria

There is growing worldwide opposition to the granting of patents on biological materials; such as, genes, plants, animals and humans. Farmers and indigenous peoples are outraged that plants that they developed are being 'hijacked' by companies. Groups as diverse as religious leaders, parliamentarians and environment NGOs are intensifying their campaign against corporate patenting of living things.

Worldwide opposition to biological piracy is rapidly building up as more and more groups and people become aware that big corporations are reaping massive profits from using the knowledge and biological resources of Third World communities.
—Martin Khor, Director, TWN, Third World Netword

"Salt lake is focus of 'bio-piracy case' "

Biopiracy illustrated
Word Info image © ALL rights reserved.

In generations past, the people who lived around Lake Bogoria, Kenya, attributed mystical powers to its water.

Chilly in some points and scalding in others, Lake Bogoria could supposedly wash away an array of maladies from skin ailments to stress. Goats were, and sometimes still are, slaughtered at the edge of the lake's hot springs as offerings to the spirits thought to reside in the mist.

Equally miraculous uses have been discovered recently for the water, which is as salty as the sea and holds hearty microorganisms not commonly found in other parts of the world.

  • Although it has a primordial feel, Lake Bogoria is in many ways thoroughly modern, a little-known player in the fashion industry, for instance, and the subject of a high-stakes legal dispute to boot.
  • Those stonewashed jeans that fit oh, so right may owe their bleached appearance and soft feel to Lake Bogoria, or more specifically to an enzyme isolated from a microbe collected here.
  • Another enzyme derived from creatures in Kenyan salt lakes like this one plays an important role in commonly used detergents, rooting out difficult stains and reducing the forming of pill bumps on cotton fabrics.
  • What the company that developed the commercial uses for the microbes trumpets as innovative science, Kenyan authorities are decrying as "bio-piracy".
  • Developing countries are seeking to share in the profits made from their biological riches, whether from a fungus found in giraffe dung, an antibiotic discovered in a termite mound or an appetite suppressant derived from a cactus.
  • At Lake Bogoria and Lake Nakuru, to its south, scientists took samples in plastic bags in 1992. They found "extremophiles," durable creatures that reside in one of the Earth's most inhospitable terrains, and subjected them to a battery of tests.
  • Genencor International, a California- based company, subsequently purchased the enzyme samples, patented them and cloned them on an industrial scale for textile companies and detergent manufacturers.
  • Genencor has not been shy about the origins of its microbes. In its annual report in 2000, it boasted: "To find enzymes that flourish in alkaline environments, like your Saturday wash water, the enzymes that give your jeans a 'softer' feel and a stonewashed look, we looked for them, that's right, in the soda lakes of Kenya."
  • Kenyan officials learned in 1994 that the company was profiting from materials taken from the lake and have been pursuing compensation ever since. They say proper permission was never granted for microorganisms to be taken and sold.
  • Genencor said in a statement, "We welcome an open dialogue with appropriate Kenyan authorities and look forward to a positive resolution."
  • Kenyan officials say they believe that the profits are far more than the company is letting on; and while Genencor insists that one of its main business partners, Procter & Gamble, has not used the Kenyan enzymes in its products, the Kenyans suspect otherwise.
—Excerpts from "Washday miracle? Kenya wants profit share"
by Marc Lacey, International Herald Tribune;
February 22, 2006; page 2.

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