Nairobi (All Africa News Agency, December 13, 1999) - Without adequate legal and biotechnology know-how, fear is rife that Kenya could lose its wealth of biogenetic resources through faulty material transfer agreements with transnational concerns. A showdown is at the moment brewing between Kenya scientists and their United Kingdom counterparts over a material transfer agreement the former say is a cleverly designed ploy to access local plant genetic resources with undue ease. By Juma Kwayera Kenyans are wary that the material transfer agreement MTA is fraught with technical errors that could in the end cede the country's resources to Royal Botanical Gardens-Kew scientists without the country or local people benefiting.
Through a project known as the Millennium Seed Bank MSB, the RBG-Kew has embarked on an ambitious global project to conserve PGR of endangered species. According to correspondence between the National Museums of Kenya NMK, the MSB project is also underway in Brazil, Mexico, Egypt and Bourkina Faso among other tropical countries. In Kenya, this has generated a scientific debate over the content of such an agreement, the procedures and the benefits to accrue from such a project that is wholly dependent on local material and people. If the deal is sealed between the various parties involved, Kew Gardens would be allowed to harvest genetic plant material from Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands for storage in Britain.
From the onset, Kew wants to collect and conserve genetic materials from plants that are not endangered at all, says a Kenyan pharmacist. "We would expect Kew Gardens to target plant in the areas where human encroachment on such plant threatens their continued existence. The arid lands the Kew scientists are interested in are still intact," the pharmacist complaints.
The exchanges between Kenyan scientists stems from suspicion that RBG-Kew wants to circumvent the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity CBD protocol on the content of such. Lack of commitment and deliberate distortions in an internationally required protocol are cited basis of the suspicion that all may not well with the MTA.
Francis Situma, a Kenyan law lecturer, says that lack of plant genetic mapping puts the Kenyan scientists in rather a precarious position.. In a project called the Millennium Seed Bank MSB, the agreement will sanction the transfer of plant resources from Kenya for storage in Britain. "One cannot rule out intellectual biopiracy, unless the genetic material in question are from plants endemic to the country's ecosystem especially if the same project is being undertaken elsewhere," cautions Situma. The MTA, he says, must be specific on the type of species to be bioprospected in order to erase the inherent ambiguities and contradictions can abet biopiracy and tampering with indigenous PGRs. The National Council for Science and Technology NCST says that some of the MTA's articles arrogantly "tucked in by British lawyers and scientists to cheat Kenya out of her genetic resources". Unless expunged, NCST argues, they could be a highway to accessing genetic material of unknown value to his country.
As the deadlock persists stakeholder institutions in the project are questioning the integrity of the Kew scientists. The RBG-Kew scientists are accused of sleaze in order to skew the process in their favour, by offering handsome cash rewards to the frontline negotiators in Kenya. It is estimated that the world is likely to loose about 25 percent of its genetic resources by 2050 if current population pressure remains on the biodiversity resources. Further, scientists world-wide estimate that the plants in areas hitherto regarded as ecologically marginal hold the key to future food security and disease management.
"This is why foreign institutions are taking advantage of the general ignorance and poverty in developing countries to exploit their genetic, camouflaged as a benefit-sharing engagement," says a NMK scientist privy to the goings-on in the agreement. He regrets that the agreement is afoul with individualism and absence of "the general good" of the leaders of the contracting institutions.
The hurry to have the project come into existence via an interim MTA under British laws has roused suspicions in Kenya. "Why hurry the agreement when it is just provisional?" said a senior officer who requested anonymity. On the lapses in the interim agreement that the Kew scientist, Dr. Roger Smith, was keen on implementing last September pending other logistical details, she says: "An agreement must have a time span. It cannot run on forever in the manner RBG seed experts want to it be. This is where we want the National Museums of Kenya to come clean". Situma says the legality of the document presupposes the existence of good faith and goodwill from the contracting parties. "But experience has proved elsewhere that individuals can violate national or community resources for personal gain. We must incorporate contingencies measures in the MTA because good faith and goodwill can be compromised," he notes. Pirating of Kenyan products by British nationals is not new to Kenya. Ciondo, a hand-woven basket, and low energy consuming jiko (charcoal stove)are a current subject of controversy between British and Kenyan inventors. The African Centre of Technology and Science ACTS in Nairobi regards the two products as community innovations not subject to individual patent rights.
Mita Manek of ACTS terms it blatant theft and gross intellectual piracy, besides pointing to potential abuse and disregard of agreements. The gaps in the MTA are reminiscent of instances in history where communities were swindled of their wealth through non-definite MTA or poor memorandum of understanding for bioprospecting.
The World Foundation for Environment and Development WFED says of deficient MTAs: "Biopiracy is a problem for countries of both the North and South. It undermines legitimate and important scientific research as well as the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by depriving all interested parties of the opportunity to negotiate equitable and efficient benefit-sharing agreements.
A Kenyan pharmacist adds that benefit-sharing should be tangible and explicitly provide for tangible benefits such as transfer of technology, training, collaboration, tangible resourcing of indigenous communities. "The MTA we are discussing lacks these points of detail as enshrined in the CBD, on which it (MTA) is based. Further, the MSB project will be wholly funded by the Kenyan government thorough its various departments and institutions," he say.
Kenyan scientists maintain there is strong possibility MSB project is a hoax through which a giant British transnational intends to access indigenous medicinal, edible and heat resistant plant varieties easily. They say giant RBG- Kew in an intermediary player for Wellcome Pharmaceutical Company of Britain.
Although the intention of MSB is noble, its execution could be challenging to Kenya which lacks a specific environmental conservation and management legislation, according says to Situma.
It is estimated that Kenya is home to over 6,000 codified plant species, 10 percent of which are gazzetted as national parks or reserves..
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Last Updated on 12/14/99
By Karen Lutz