How big corporations appropriate biological resources | DW Documentary

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Rooibos tea and the sweetener stevia were originally discovered by indigenous peoples. Now they are among a long list of biological resources that bring profit to international corporations.

Biopiracy, or scientific colonialism, is the term for when big companies appropriate biological resources or the traditional knowledge associated with them without compensating the relevant indigenous peoples. It chiefly involves stimulants, food crops and medicinal plants with benefits first determined by the people who originally cultivated them. Financially powerful corporations take that knowledge, and turn it into big business.

The Pai Tavytera in northeastern Paraguay discovered the sweetening properties of stevia centuries ago - but have seen none of the profits now being made on the global market. While they find themselves displaced to reservations and surrounded by monoculture agribusiness and cattle farms, the wild stevia plant has almost died out.

Over in South Africa, the descendants of the Khoikhoi and San face a similar fate; the country's original inhabitants were the first to cultivate rooibos, which is exclusive to the Zederberg region. Today the plant is grown on a large-scale commercial basis, and marketed worldwide, primarily as a tea product.

The fight against biopiracy, however, is not just about money and patents; species preservation is another crucial issue. Indigenous peoples possess precious insights into the workings of nature, and are recognized by UNESCO and other institutions as vital conservers of biodiversity. There are international agreements that are supposed to ensure that the relevant peoples or countries receive fair compensation for access to their genetic resources. However, in practice this rarely happens. All too often, industry and governments alike lack the will and authority to guarantee compensation payments. Biopiracy has thus become rampant - especially in the biodiversity hotspots in the southern hemisphere.

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