Namibia battles biopiracy

A new bill aims to protect the rights of local communities in relation to their traditional knowledge of the use of biological resources.

01 December 2021 | Environment

ELLANIE SMIT

WINDHOEK

Over the years, Namibia has lost some of its natural resources and associated traditional knowledge through biopiracy.

Resources have been taken from the country without systematic approval and without adequate compensation or benefits.

“The risk for biopiracy to continue is now even more grave as technology advances and opportunities arise in areas such as gene manipulation and sequencing.”

This according to deputy environment minister Heather Sibungo, who was speaking at the launch of the Access to Biological and Genetic Resources and Associated Traditional Knowledge Act.

The law aims to protect the rights of local communities in relation to correcting and regulating the exploitation of their traditional knowledge associated with the use of biological and genetic resources and to provide equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms.

According to her, Namibia is endowed with a magnificent biodiversity that has been used for nutrition, medicine, cosmetics and other purposes for centuries.

“The knowledge of how to convert these resources into usable products is rooted in our traditional knowledge passed from generation to generation.”

She said as per the constitution and the Convention of Biological Diversity, Namibia has sovereignty over its biological and genetic resources and has the responsibility to conserve and sustainably use these resources.

Major stumbling block

Sibungo said the fact that there was no internationally recognised legal instrument in place for the protection of biological and genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge has been a major stumbling block. Therefore, the Nagoya Protocol - under the Convention on Biological Diversity - was negotiated and adopted in 2010.

The protocol gave obligation to member states to put administrative measures and national laws in place and to ensure protection of local communities’ rights to access and benefit-sharing of associated traditional knowledge and the use thereof.

According to Sibungo, Namibia passed a law regarding this in 2007 while regulations were further developed.

She added that the law has now finally been gazetted and has been in operation since 1 November.

Namibia has some classic examples of resources with significant scope of value addition and great benefits to the community, local harvesters and producers, the deputy minister said. These include hoodia, devil’s claw, marula and commiphora resin.

She said Namibia accounts over 90% of the volumes of devil’s claw traded globally, yet the benefits that accrue to community-based harvesters and producers are minimal.

Languishing in poverty

“Many of the producers and harvesters continue to languish in poverty. We cannot allow such situations to continue and, as a ministry, we will - in line with this Act - be stepping up our efforts to ensure greater domestic value addition and research and development of this and other genetic and biological resources that we are so fortunate to be endowed with.”

She added that these sectors have great potential for commercialisation and demand for natural products derived from biological and genetic resources is growing.

“If we look at the organic cosmetics sector alone, it is growing between 8 to 10% annually, with huge demand for skincare and haircare products, amongst others.”

Sibungo added that the Act is not meant to prevent, stop or hinder business or investment in any way.

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