TOPICS: Need to secure Nepal’s patent rights

The Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement is paradoxical as it could infringe on poor people’s rights, especially their access to seeds and pharmaceuticals. The UN Human Development Report has consistently pointed out contradictions between human rights norms and the TRIPS. But the World Trade Organisation (WTO) makes it mandatory for developing countries to provide patent protection for microorganisms, non-biological and microbiological processes; and an effective sui generis system to protect plant varieties.

Nepal, being a WTO member, is concerned about this. It is rich in natural resources and home to many species of unique birds, animals and plants. Ethnic and indigenous people have developed a holistic and scientific knowledge of their land, environment and resources. The communities apply their own skills, innovations, technology and practices in health, farming and food. Indigenous groups like Kusunda, Surel, Kushabadiya, Chepang, Raote, and Chhieroten have deep knowledge of natural resources. The knowledge, innovations and practices of these communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant to conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity are intellectual property and sources of national economy.

Although there are umpteen sources of intellectual property, there is no effective mechanism for securing their legal rights. There is a great possibility that donor countries and multinationals will register these properties. Research institutions in agriculture, natural resource management and environment protection might serve their own interests. Some scientists might even try to dig out the properties of a particular plant from indigenous people. The latter might oblige the foreigners who, in turn, might take back the plant to their laboratory, treat it with chemicals and come up with a pill that will be patented after the lab’s name or their own. Nepal’s Bhate Phapar has been taken to foreign countries and its modified form is used as a decoration flower. Same is the case with Basmati rice, neem and turmeric. Nepal gains much by improving upon our traditional knowledge through genetic engineering. Hence Nepal should remain on alert for “bio-piracy” or “ intellectual theft”.

The TRIPS can be hard to follow for a developing Nepal because it does not specify an effective sui generis system. It is left for each country to define the laws according to their convenience. If any nation’s scheme is ineffective, it cannot secure its products and the issue cannot be reconciled with WTO.

Bangladesh and India have developed effective sui generis legislations. Nepal should also come up with appropriate sui genersis laws that respect, preserve, innovate the practice of indigenous communities and help protect rights of farmers. Moreover, Nepal should identify the source of genetic material and apply traditional knowledge in extraction and securing of the legal rights by registering these valuable properties in time.