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Author: Carina Malherbe - Department of Environmental Affairs

( Article Type: Explanation )

‘Biodiversity prospecting’, sometimes shortened to ‘bioprospecting’, is the exploration of biodiversity for commercially valuable genetic resources and biochemicals. It describes a search for resources, and the collection of resources with the intention to commercialise them. It applies to plants, animals and all living organisms, including bacteria and fungi. Bioprospecting can also include the collection of traditional knowledge relating to the use of these resources from local communities.

The intention of an activity on a resource determines whether it is considered as bioprospecting or not. If the intention is to make money from the resource through the keeping, breeding, cultivation, trading and use of it for the purpose of development and production of drugs, food flavours, fragrances, cosmetics, colours, extracts, other biochemical compounds, new plant varieties and products, it is included in the definition of bioprospecting. Bioprospecting may have a significant negative impact on the environment if keystone species are removed or local extinctions caused through overharvesting of the resource. To ensure that bioprospecting is done sustainably, the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, Act 10 of 2004 was promulgated and subsequently in 2008, it’s associated Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing Regulations. Bioprospecting does not include all research on biodiversity; in particular it does not include academic or conservation research, although these may have commercial applications in the future. It also does not include all commercial uses of natural resources – for example it does not include the trade in existing ornamental plants, logging, commercial agriculture, or even the local collection and sale of non-timber forest or veld products for domestic or subsistence purposes.

The development of new innovation drugs through bioprospecting refers to activities undertaken by a small number of commercial sectors. As a result, and because this type of bioprospecting usually involves taking small samples of material, its impact on the environment is usually minimal. However, it is important to ensure that bioprospecting is done in a sustainable and ethical manner and results in fair benefits for the country and local people from which the genetic resources are prospected. This is an important objective of the International Convention on Biological Diversity to which South Africa is party. Because South Africa is rich in biodiversity and traditional knowledge, and also has well-developed research capacity and institutions, we are an important player in bioprospecting, and there are several projects underway to investigate the potential of our local plants and animals.
 One of the best-known examples of bioprospecting is the development by the CSIR and the UK-based company Phytopharm of an anti-obesity drug, based on the San people’s traditional knowledge of a Kalahari plant called ghaap/xhooba, or Hoodia gordonii. Another example is the production of a marula-based liqueur (Amarula – Distell Ltd). Up until 2004 there was no legislation to control bioprospecting in South Africa, but in 2004 the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, Act 10 of 2004 was promulgated and in 2008 the associated Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing (BABS) Regulations came into force. The Biodiversity Act and the BABS Regulations require users of biodiversity first to obtain permission to commercialise local biodiversity and related knowledge.
Users are also obliged to ensure that they share benefits fairly with holders of knowledge and those providing the biological resources. Whilst these developments are certainly an improvement on the previous lack of control over bioprospecting, it is important to recognise that bioprospecting brings only limited financial or other non-monetary benefits. When biodiversity or knowledge about biodiversity is collected without permission from the owners of these resources – and then patented – it is commonly referred to as ‘biopiracy’. The Biodiversity Act and the BABS Regulations provide for considerable penalties for offences against the environment. These penalties could amount to R 5 million, 5 years imprisonment or both, for offenders found guilty.

Countries wanting to commercialise their biodiversity need to do so as part of an overarching and multi-faceted strategy, which considers bioprospecting as only one of many different options to reap benefits from biological resources.