by GRAIN | 4 Jun 1999

June 1999



United States NGOs are celebrating an important victory in a biopiracy case they have been fighting for the last year. On March 24th, a US judge suspended implementation of the bioprospecting deal between Yellowstone and the US biotech company, Diversa, that had been announced by the National Park Service in August 1997 (see Seedling, March 1999, p2). Diversa had conducted a back-room deal with the US National Parks Service to sell exclusive rights to Yellowstone's natural resources in exchange for scientific information.

In March 1998, a coalition led by three organisations (the Edmonds Institute, the International Center for Technology Assessment, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies) sued the US Department of the Interior and National Parks Service for allowing the commercial exploitation of natural resources of the Yellowstone National Park, and violating at least five legislative texts in the process. The NGOs contested the Park's decision to allow the privatisation of resources that had been conserved "for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people." Another issue was the secrecy maintained on the agreed terms of financial compensation.

The subjects of interest to Diversa were heat-loving micro-organisms which thrive in Yellowstone's thermal pools and geysers. These have found all sorts of applications in industrial processes from paper-making to meat tenderising. Thermus aquaticus, one such micro-organism, was taken from Yellowstone a few years back and one of its enzymes currently earns for its 'owner' Hoffman La Roche, the Swiss drug giant, more than US$ 100 million a year.

In the recent ruling, the judge called on the US Department of the Interior (DoI) to prepare an environmental assessment in accordance with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. He also ruled that the plaintiffs could seek a further judgement on whether the Dol ever had legal authority to enter into the type of deal attempted with Diversa. The judge said that, "the future of bioprospecting on federal lands in the US appears to be a work in progress, but the government as of yet has not engaged in any public debate on the issue nor made any definitive policy statement through regulations or less formal means. "

Source: Press release from the Edmonds Institute. Contact: Beth Burrows, Email: [email protected]

Author: GRAIN
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