‘More precious than gold’

In imposing antimining policies during her short stint as the country’s top environment official, Regina Paz L. Lopez aptly described biodiversity as more precious than gold.

Lopez, hence, moved to include biodiversity consideration among the criteria of the mine audit she ordered last year.

More than two dozen mining projects were recommended for closure or suspension for failing to meet environmental standards.

“Biodiversity is gold,” Lopez declared as she underscored the importance of protecting and conserving the country’s rich biodiversity from destructive development projects before her appointment as environment chief was rejected by the powerful Commission on Appointments in May.

High endemism

While the Philippines is endowed with rich mineral deposits, it is also rich in biodiversity and very high endemism.

Being an island archipelago comprised of 7,641 islands, according to the latest inventory conducted by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (Namria), more than half of the over 52,000 species found in the Philippines are endemic.

As such, the Philippines has huge potential for the use of its genetic resources, environment Undersecretary for Climate Change Service Analiza R. Teh said. She serves as head of the secretariat of the Climate Change Adaptation, Mitigation and Disaster Risk Reduction (CCAM-DRR) Cabinet Cluster tasked to pursue the crafting of a national policy and guideline on access and benefit sharing in the utilization of genetic resources.

Stronger policy

The Duterte administration is now a step closer to strengthening the national policy through an executive order (EO), putting in place stricter guidelines that will ensure fair and equitable benefits from collection, conduct of scientific research and product development and commercialization.

Rep. Josephine Y. Ramirez-Sato of the Lone District of Occidental Mindoro, one of the biodiversity champions in the House of Representatives, is working with the current Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) secretary, Roy A. Cimatu, for a stronger national policy in the form the proposed executive order.

The Philippines’s weak policy on access and benefit sharing on biodiversity allowed the exploitation of the country’s genetic resources with zero or no substantial benefits to the national and local government or the community where they were found.

While the current law allows access for the purpose of academic and scientific research, including those for commercial purposes, the Philippines is not getting its fair share from the deal with those with business interests.

Pirated resources

In her presentation before a meeting of members and representatives of the CCAM-DRR Cabinet Cluster in October, Teh, who also acts as head of the secretariat of the Cabinet cluster, said the Philippines has much to gain in putting in place the guideline on access and benefit sharing—and everything to lose in case of inaction.

The lack of protection against biopiracy has resulted in the piracy of genetic resources, she said.

These include the famous nata de coco, a by-product of Philippine coconut which has been patented by Japan; the bitter gourd, or locally known as ampalaya, which has been patented by the US as a vitamin A-rich vegetable.

The Cromatic Research Inc. in New Jersey USA also patented ampalaya, with eggplant, as cure for diabetes. The Philippine yew tree has been patented by the University of Philadelphia as a source of a cancer-curing substance called taxol.

The ylang-ylang oil extract has been patented by perfume maker YSL, while banaba, a medicinal plant used for the treatment of fever and diarrhea, is now patented by a Japanese company Itoen KK.

Another plant discovered with active ingredients with potentially high commercial value is saluyot, which was patented by a Japanese firm for an anti-stress tablet.

Various Japanese companies have patented sambong, lagundi and takip-kuhol.

Traditional uses

Most of these genetic resources, whether from plants or animals, have long been used in Philippine rural communities as sources of natural medicine.

Nowadays, big foreign companies, which have gained access to these genetic resources, have developed and benefited from some of the products and by-products, unfortunately leaving out indigenous cultural communities, who first learned to use them, whether for food, medicine or for health and well-being.

Long before western medicines were introduced, many plant species were known to cure illnesses—an indigenous knowledge that was passed on from generation to generation.

Access to these genetic resources—mostly herbs or plant with high active ingredients and potential high commercial value if and when developed into life-saving medicine, as a miracle cure to certain illnesses, beauty products, vitamins or food additives—is not strictly monitored because of lack of appropriate guidelines or regulatory processes.

Market trends

According to Teh, there is a huge economic potential in bioprospecting. Allowing access to Philippine genetic resources, with fair and equitable benefits, is a potential revenue-earning endeavor, for the public and private sector, citing market trends and potentials from genetic resources.

Global industries show great potentials if fair and equitable benefit-sharing agreements are made from the use of genetic resources. A Convention on Biological Diversity Technical Paper, titled “Access and Benefit Sharing in Practice: Trends in Partnerships across Sectors”, lists the industries and financial potentials from their market values that run up to billions of dollars.

In the global pharmaceutical industry alone, it is estimated that the value of genetic resources used is a whopping $643 billion. For healthy foods, which include functional foods, natural and organic foods, the estimate runs up to $120 billion.

For biotechnology, which partly includes pharmaceutical, agriculture and industrial-process technology, the estimate is $70 billion; for seed, crop and plant biotechnology, the estimated value of genetic resources used is $30 billion.

Proposed measure

RAMIREZ-Sato has filed during the current 17th Congress the House Bill 2163 for the purpose of institutionalizing access, as well as a fair share from the development and commercialization of these resources, taking note of the huge potential economic benefits of sustainably managing the country’s natural wealth.

The lawmaker underscored the urgency of putting in place a national policy through an executive order emanating from the highest official of the land pending the enactment of her proposed bill.

In her statement released to the media, Ramirez-Sato said: “An executive order can serve as guidelines on bioprospecting, where investors and the state, which owns these resources, and the communities as its protectors, can fairly and equitably share the benefits.”

According to Teh, the target is to come up with the final draft EO, which Cimatu will present to members of CCAM-DRR Cabinet Cluster and finally, to President Duterte for final approval and signing.

Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said the draft EO solicited comments and inputs from members of the technical working group for integration and harmonization with existing policies of every concerned agency to be headed by the DENR.

“We are now refining the draft EO to integrate the recommendations of the TWG,” Lim said.

Once signed, the EO will strengthen the national policy on access and benefit sharing that will ensure not only access for bioprospecting, but also protection against biopiracy.

State policy

The draft EO, a copy of which was obtained by the BusinessMirror, declares the state policy to secure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of all genetic resources in the country for the purpose of wealth generation and poverty alleviation.

It is also the policy of the state to pursue strategic programs and initiatives on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The EO will promote the conduct of scientific research and enable faster regulatory approvals from key agencies.

It is expected to facilitate mapping and conducting inventory of the country’s genetic resources to pave the way for local economic development, spur local employment and generate income for individuals, businesses and even the government.

Ultimately, incomes generated from genetic-resource utilization can contribute to financing biodiversity protection and conservation plans, programs and projects.

Use it or lose it

Lim said upon refining the EO, an endorsement letter will be crafted for signing by the environment chief, justifying the need for a stronger national policy that will make use of these genetic resources.

“[The EO] is undergoing complete staff work. Secretary Cimatu has approved in principle to endorse the draft EO but we need to refine it,” Lim added.

In throwing her support behind the signing of the EO, Lim said: “[It] aims to harness the genetic resources from our biological diversity. We need to firm up the benefits we can derive from the utilization of these genetic resources and know what technologies are appropriate for every genetic material,” Lim said.

However, she added conducting an inventory of plant or animal genetic resources with potential commercial value would require huge investment.

“We need to invest in the conduct of the inventory of our natural resources. There is really no problem in investing money if we know the potential returns. We don’t want to lose these resources to biopiracy or threats that lead to their extinction or biodiversity loss,” Lim noted.

She added that another key to luring investment in bioprospecting is the potential to develop and score scientific breakthroughs for effective fighting tools that will combat climate-change impacts.

The BMB chief said the conduct of inventory of genetic resources would not start from scratch, noting that there are protected areas whose plant and genetic resources have been recorded by the BMB and other research institutions.

Plants and animal species that are resilient to climate change can be developed through biotechnology and come up with by-products that are useful in developing pest-resistant, high-yielding crops and, more important, agricultural products and by-products that are resilient to flood or drought, she added.

-Written by Jonathan L. Mayuga.  See original article link here.