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Biopiracy is a situation in which indigenous knowledge of nature, originating with indigenous peoples, is used by others for profit, without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people themselves. An example come from cases in which bioprospectors draw on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants, which is later patented by medical companies without recognizing the fact that the knowledge is not new, or invented by the patenter, and depriving the indigenous community to the rights to commercial exploitation of the technology that they themselves had developed. These practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting companies that engage in ‘biopiracy’.

Bioprospecting or Biopiracy 

Biodiversity prospecting is the exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and indigenous knowledge for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources. The market for buying and selling exotic biological species is expanding rapidly.

For decades, plant collectors from industrialized countries have searched for valuable genetic material for agricultural plant breeding. This is increasingly fueled by the fact that species, their genetic material, and the ecosystems of which they are a part are rapidly disappearing. A growing number of pharmaceutical corporations, biotechnology companies (and their intermediaries) are searching the forests, fields and waters of the developing world in search of biological riches and indigenous knowledge. Mostly northern-based institutions seek access to tropical biodiversity for the primary purpose of developing patented and profitable products.

Quite often valuable chemical compounds derived from plants, animals and microorganisms are more easily identified and of greatest commercial value when collected with indigenous knowledge and/or found in territories traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples. About one in 10,000 chemicals derived from mass screening of plants, animals and microbes eventually results in a potentially profitable drug. Through observing and talking to indigenous healers this amount can be significantly reduced. But often no money changes hands in the process. Nor is recognition given to the indigenous farming communities who selected, maintained and improved traditional crop varieties.

Instead, patents are granted to corporations who claim inventions based on indigenous resources or knowledge. More specifically biopiracy, refers to the appropriation, generally by means of patents of legal rights over biological materials by international companies to develop food or medicines, without recompensing the countries from which they are taken.

This is why bioprospecting is often perceived as biopiracy.

International agreements

Bioprospecting is touched on by the Convention on Biological Diversity which entered into force in December, 1993.

It recognizes that states have sovereign rights over their natural resources, and that terms and conditions for access to these materials are within the domain of national legislation. The Convention also recognizes the “knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities” and specifically “encourage[s] the equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices” (Article 8(j)).

The Convention offers a multilateral facade for addressing conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, but no multilateral mechanisms for making it happen. The Convention promotes bilateral deals (commercial contracts and other agreements for access to biodiversity) but not a strong plan of action based on broad, multi-country collaboration (especially South-South) for access to–and development of–biological diversity.

Bilateral bioprospecting agreements are sanctioned by the multilateral Convention on Biological Diversity. In the vast majority of cases, however, commercial bioprospecting agreements cannot be effectively monitored or enforced by source communities, countries, or by the Convention, and amount to little more than “legalized” bio-piracy.


For further reading

Mgbeoji, Ikechi (2005) Global biopiracy: patents, plants, and indigenous knowledge. UBC Press, Vancouver, BC.

Robinson, D. F. (2010). Confronting biopiracy: challenges, cases and international debates. Earthscan.

Shiva, V. (1999) Biopiracy: The plunder of nature and knowledge. Boston: South End Press.

UNDP (1994) Conserving Indigenous Knowledge: Integrating Two Systems of Innovation. New York: United Nations Development Programme.


Useful websites:

To learn more about plants on the biopiracy hot list visit the Traditional Ecological Prior Art Database 


This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Henk Hobbelink.

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.

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