Is there no end to what rich nations will take from the poor? asks Paul Richardson

For seventeen years before moving to Australia at the beginning of 1995 I lived in Papua New Guinea. In common with most other countries in the developing world, PNG has learnt the need for constant vigilance to prevent its natural resources being exploited by adventurous carpetbaggers or unscrupulous multi-nationals.

Because of their independence and wide-ranging contacts, the churches in places like PNG are often well placed to act as watchdogs and whistle blowers, able to keep an eye on the activities of foreign logging or fishing companies and draw attention to any misbehaviour. In recent years PNG’s churches have played a significant role in criticising the way logging companies like Malaysia’s Rimbuman Hijau are making huge profits out of the country and in highlighting the danger to the environment posed by CRA’s Ok Tedi mine in the Star Mountains. A massive $40 billion compensation claim on the part of people who argue that the Fly River from which they derive their livelihood has been polluted by tailings from the Ok Tedi copper mine is now before a Melbourne court.

Since I left PNG, however, a new threat to the country’s resources has appeared on the horizon, not to its forests or mineral wealth but to the right of its people to control the use made of their own genetic materials. It has just been revealed that in March of last year the US granted a patent on a virus contained within a cell line taken from blood from young members of the Hagahai people who live in the remote Schrader Mountains.

The application for the patent was made by Dr. Carol Jenkins of PNG’s medical research institute based in Goroka. For a number of years now Dr. Jenkins has been attempting to improve the quality of living of the Hagahai people. Her claim to be the first outsider to have discovered them is certainly exaggerated. The group was known to anthropologists and government officials before Dr. Jenkins appeared on the scene, but the people were neglected and unable to benefit from health care services or education. Dr. Jenkins has raised money to provide an aid post and a school and has even been responsible for transporting a dancing group from the area to perform at shows around PNG.

However when it was revealed that Carol Jenkins had signed a patent application on their behalf, a storm broke. Not even the PNG government was aware of the step she had taken. To do Dr. Jenkins justice, she did not like having to sign the document but she saw no alternative if the Hagahai were to benefit from their own genetic inheritance. As she told an Australian reporter, the people themselves cannot read or write so she had to act and has made a verbal agreement with them guaranteeing they will receive a share of the profits.

Knowing of Dr. Jenkins’ work among the Hagahai, I believe she operated in the best interests of the people, but the case still gives plenty of grounds for concern. Tribal peoples in the Pacific and elsewhere in the globe are a resource of genetic diversity. In almost all cases the people themselves have little in the way of material possessions, yet World Trade Organisation guidelines enable scientists or industrialists to patent their genetic codes if they have medicinal or commercial use.

Some critics of the Uruguay Round that set up the guidelines have argued that, as God is the author of life, it is wrong to allow others to patent what he has created. This is to go too far. As one defender of the existing system has pointed out, “to receive a patent on a gene, scientists have to specify where the gene is situated, what its exact genetic sequence is, what function it performs in the body, and what they intend to do with their discovery – and none of these are trivial accomplishments”.

The existence of a patent law undoubtedly encourages scientists to try to make useful discoveries and when they have made such a discovery the law also enables them to reveal what they have found without the fear of losing their rightful reward. The US patent office will grant a scientist a twenty year exclusive licence for a gene on condition that he or she discloses all that has been discovered about it, thereby enabling other scientists to make use of the information. A system of patents does encourage openness and scientific progress.

But none of these factors removes the fear of what some aboriginal people in Australia have labelled “bio-colonialism”. Who is to guarantee that there will always be a Carol Jenkins on hand to make sure that people who cannot read or write and have no scientific understanding or awareness of such thing as gene therapy benefit from what has been discovered in their own bodies? Under US law, only individuals or incorporated bodies can make an application for a patent. Tribal groups and communities are ruled out. They must rely on informal agreements among themselves or with a third party.

The potential here for trickery and exploitation is enormous. Minerals, forests, fish, and now genes – is there no end to what the rich nations will take from the poor?

Paul Richardson is the Bishop of Wangaratta, in the Province of Victoria, Australia.