Chanel, Selva Viva Accused of Biopiracy

At the request of the Federal Public Prosecution Service and of the Office of the Attorney General of Acre, the Federal Court of Acre may expel the nongovernmental organization Selva Viva, created by Ruediger Von Renighaus, a Swiss citizen, from the state of Acre at any moment. The entity was accused by Cimi and the Union of Indigenous Nations of Acre (UNI-AC) of biopiracy.

Because of denunciations of this kind, Acre became the first Brazilian state to approve a biodiversity law, proposed by state deputy Edvaldo Magalhaes. The law was created as a result of the activities of an investigating committee which confirmed denunciations against Selva Viva. If the organization is actually expelled from Acre, it will have been the first case of biopiracy to be decided by a court in Brazil.

Selva Viva was accused of cataloging roots, barks and seeds for research laboratories such as Ciba-Geigy, Hoechst, Sandoz, Lilly and Johnson & Johnson assisted by Indians who received medicines and money in exchange for their help. The government of Acre has no control over the entry and activities of foreign researchers in the state. Public prosecutor Rita de Cassia Nogueira Lima told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper that ``the flow of researchers in hotels of the region, the collection of plants and negotiations with foreign entities reached a critical level in Acre''.

Brasilia, 7 August 1997
Indigenist Missionary Council - Cimi


BRAZIL-BIODIVERSITY: Crackdown on Eco-Pirates

By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 14 (IPS) - Brazilian environmentalists, fighting to halt the wholesale theft of bio-resources from the Amazon basin, is taking a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to court for illegally stealing the knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Another French NGO has cited the world famous perfume manufacturing firm of Chanel for endangering the existence of a rare Brazilian tree used in its products.

Selva Viva ("Living Rainforest") an NGO founded by Ruediger Von Renighaus, a native of Switzerland, is the defendant in Brazil's first eco-piracy trial. The NGO stands accused of selling knowledge about roots, shells, and seeds obtained from the peoples of the northeast Brazilian state of Acre, to foreign pharmaceutical firms. A court in Acre is expected to issue a decision momentarily to respond to formal accusations by both state and federal prosecutors.

Chanel is accused of contributing to the extinction of the ''palo rosa'', a Amazon tree whose Latin name is Aniba Rosoeodora. Chanel No.5, one of the best known perfumes in the world, is made with oil from this tree, according to an NGO called ''Robin Wood'' which had called for a worldwide boycott of the company.

The case against Selva Viva was brought to the Acre public prosecutor's office by the local Roman Catholic Church officials, the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and the Indigenous Nations' Union of Acre (UNI-AC).

The group accused Selva Viva of passing on information recognized as the property of native peoples to large multi- national pharmaceutical corporations, such as Ciba-Geigy, Johnson & Johnson, Hoechst, Sandoz and Lilly in return for medicines and money.

The charges are the latest of many such accusations against other firms and individuals involving the knowledge and genetic resources of the Amazon region being usurped by multinational corporations.

But ''for the first time, public officials are acting effectively and even the Federal Police has ordered field investigations,'' said David Hathaway, an environmental consultant for environmental and
agricultural international NGOs, with relief.

In the past Brazilian authorities have always ''talked a lot about the sovereignty of the Amazon'' but did little to end the looting of the region's environmental patrimony, according to Hathaway. He said the main issue involved the knowledge that has been developed by indigenous communities or subsistence farmers being obtained by companies or persons who may try to patent them as their own. In addition, the extraction of certain natural resources may result in environmental damage.

Acre has been turned into something of an environmental battleground. The state legislative assembly approved a law last month which will protect biodiversity and imposes harsh penalties against foreigners who claim rights to Amazonian forests.

The Biodiversity law sought to end to ''neo-colonialism - the invasion which in no way benefits our region'', stated Deputy Edvaldo Magalhaes, author of the bill and a member of the Brazilian Communist Party. But the legislation, which parliament may extend to other Amazon states, provoked extreme reactions.

Sergio Ferreira, ex-President of the Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress, criticized the law, calling it inefficient. But Aziz Ab Saber, a geographer and environmentalist, felt it could contribute to stepping up the fight against the ''alarming situation'' in the Amazon, prior to its complete decimation and the plunder of its resources.

Hathaway lamented that in addition to the initiative's limitations, it was rushed through and did not receive the lengthy discussion the issue deserved. A better solution, he said, may come out of a national bill which is being sponsored by Senator Marina Silva that seeks to codify the Biodiversity Agreement signed at the Environmental Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. The Acre legislation was inspired by an earlier proposal by the Senator, which was modified after two years of debate in the Senate.

One major point at issue is the right of indigenous communities or small subsistence farmers to protect the knowledge they have developed over generations. This is a problem of international proportions, says Hathaway.

At present, international patent laws only recognize the rights of companies or individuals, and do not recognize the right of intellectual property belonging to an entire community. What's missing is a way to guarantee indigenous communities non- commercial rights to their knowledge which govern use of such knowledge, with access to it shared or remunerated, he said.

In any event, Hathaway considers the moves in Acre a positive step against eco-piracy which has carried on unhindered until now, despite being almost universally condemned.

He noted that Chico Mendes, the distinguished and internationally-known environmentalist, was the original leader of the Acre ''Amazon forest people'', who are in the forfront of the fight against eco-piracy. Mendes was assassinated in 1988.

South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC)
P.O. Box 28703
Oakland CA, 94604
Phone: (510)834-4263 Fax: (510)834-4264
Office: 1714 Franklin Street, 3rd Floor, Oakland

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