Spotlight on biopiracy – The Sunday Times Sri Lanka


Spotlight on biopiracy

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Naazima Kamardeen at the launch. Pic by Amila Gamage

The College House has witnessed so much history. Its centenarian memories would fill rich volumes bursting with good things. Tuesday this week, the former Regina Walawwe’s auditorium was packed with the legal fraternity of Colombo- there to celebrate the launch of two landmark volumes, both written by the youngest professor (currently) of the Colombo University’s Faculty of Law, Naazima Kamardeen.

Fresh off the writer’s pen, the first book is titled Bio-piracy’s Forgotten Victims: Lessons from Sri Lanka, while the second is a Sinhala translation, by Pramodha Vithanage, of Naazima’s 2016 publication titled, Global Trade & Sri Lanka: Which Way Forward?

The author is someone the Colombo University is immensely proud to claim. Still in her early forties, Naazima has to her credit over 30 publications in international journals of repute- quite a feat seeing as she also juggles many teaching, administrative and examination duties.

The chief guest was Jagath Gunewardena, the attorney-at-law and environmental scientist who combines legal studies with his ardent passion for nature and wildlife and his background in science. Gunewardena identified Naazima’s latest book as the most comprehensive publication ever to have appeared in Sri Lanka on this subject. There have been other publications prior to this, appearing in Sinhala, but these he said were “more or less based on cases and case studies, whereas there was very little analysis of law- seeing as they were all authored by non-legal writers.”

Gunewardena, uniquely placed to speak about bio-piracy, pointed out that the island has been a victim of the transgression even before the world minted a name for it. ‘Bio-piracy’ was freshly coined in 1993 in Canada, whereas the very first case of piracy to do with our fauna and flora known to Gunewardena was in 1989- to do with a microbe that was taken from a paddy field in Jaffna and patented in USA.

Yet it was in 1998 that the issue came under serious glare, when a huge consignment of kotala himbutu Salacia reticulata, known to treat diabetes while being a slimming agent and an antidote to skin diseases, liver ailments and several venereal diseases like gonorrhea, was discovered- intended for an avid Japanese market.

Gunewardena pointed out that Sri Lanka is doubly vulnerable to bio-piracy- given that we have a very high rate of endemism- with endemic plants making up as much as 25% of the whole, while in some groups of animals the percentage can go up to 90. Another reason is that the country possesses a magnanimous bounty of traditional knowledge-especially in Ayurveda- which foreigners can easily exploit.

The book, said Gunewardena, is invaluable- especially given new and highly sinister trends in bio-piracy that threaten the whole world. One of these is a surge of patents being given for human cell lines, genes and gene fragments- as tumour cells and cancer cells of people become indispensable to medical research.

Another grave menace hovering in the horizon is that patents can now be issued to cover whole genus of a single plant, meaning that even if the species extends across different countries, people can simultaneously get broad coverage for the whole genus at the same time.

“As bio-piracy keeps coming up with such innovative schemes, the legislators too have to co-evolve, finding new ways to fight them,” said Gunewardena.

The new book can serve this purpose admirably, addressing a readership of not only law enforcers such as the Sri Lanka Customs, the Wildlife Department, the Forest Department and the Ministry of Environment, but also legal practitioners, students, and other researchers in the scientific arena.

The translation of the book on global trade, too, was a great milestone, ensuring that legal knowledge gets disseminated to a wider audience, ensuring greater equity in learning. Translator Pramodha Vithanage squarely faced the challenge of getting the work ready by the time for the new book’s launch, finishing the task barely two days before the birth of her first child. “I admire Pramodha’s sense of commitment and professionalism,” said Prof. Naazima in concluding her own address.

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