It is often claimed that Malaysia is rich in biodiversity resources, that we have the world’s oldest rainforests, that our rainforest is pristine and virgin, untouched commercially by the human hand. But are we taking advantage of this biodiversity asset to serve the needs of the country or the global community? Do we have the technical know-how or the financial resources and incentives to do that?
The abundance of natural resources in Malaysia has yet to be fully exploited by researchers here. Many believe that possible cures for some of today’s life-threatening diseases can be found in the rainforests of countries rich in cultural and biological diversity, where so much has yet to be explored. With resources in some developed countries fast depleting, many corporations are looking at other countries in search of potentially valuable genetic material and biochemical compounds in nature.
These corporations source and collect genetic materials from organisms such as bacteria, plants, animals and even from the genes of the native people. Once they have gathered enough, the corporations will begin researching and developing new products with the resources they have pooled. They will then lay claim on the work by applying for patents or other intellectual property rights on the products or technology containing the genetic materials, in order to prevent their competitors from producing the products or using the technology. The returns are huge when their pharmaceutical and agricultural products hit the market, and these corporations can reap further profits by hiking up prices of their products and charging royalties to other parties who wish to use their technology.
These same corporations would not have succeeded in their biodiversity prospecting ventures if it were not for the indigenous communities or farmers who shared their knowledge in locating and evolving the uses of these plants and animals for food, medicine and much more. However, they receive minimal or no returns while their knowledge is exploited by these corporations for commercial purposes. The corporations claim exclusive rights on plants and animals which have been genetically modified to include selected genes while the indigenous communities are left with little despite their contribution. Their understanding, efforts and innovation involving uses of plants and animals are neither acknowledged nor rewarded accordingly.
This scenario is not uncommon in some third world countries and in certain biologically diverse countries. Malaysia is one of the twelve mega-biologically diverse countries in the world, and being a multi-racial country, Malaysia does not lack in traditional knowledge such as observations, experience and know-how in various uses of local plants for healthcare and disease treatment purposes. Local researchers or institutions should take advantage of their being “locals” and thus having a better awareness or understanding of traditional knowledge and also the biodiversity in Malaysia. Instead of foreign corporations capitalizing on these rights privately, local researchers or research institutions can look at this as an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with these foreign corporations or even local companies in developing the technology and products through contractual agreements. With this, returns which may be in the form of royalties from commercialized products and intellectual property rights, or even financial assistance used for developing research work in institutions in our country is at least ensured.
One good example would be the agreement between the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) of Costa Rica and the Merck pharmaceutical company wherein the institute assists Merck in providing and processing extracts obtained from wild plants, animals and micro-organisms indigenous to Costa Rica for their drug screening programme. INBio will receive a budget for their work with Merck, royalties on the commercial product derived from their work and also technical assistance plus training for their researchers. This agreement has benefited Costa Rica because due to a substantial amount of technology being transferred, the local researchers are now trained and have the relevant technology to discover and assess extracts from other organisms which may be helpful against local diseases. In addition to that, a portion of the royalties received from INBio goes into conservation which is crucial in sustaining biodiversity in that country.
While we have yet to see such partnerships happening in Malaysia, the potential for the implementation of such a model is vast and we can certainly learn and adopt the practice accordingly. The biotechnology market, agricultural and healthcare biotechnology in particular, is expanding rapidly in Malaysia and it will be only a matter of time before pharmaceutical giants begin to approach Malaysia and tap into our rich biodiversity resources before the locals do.