Indonesia strengthens laws against biopirates

Indonesia strengthens laws against biopirates

INDONESIA is strengthening its laws this year to protect its genetic resources. The government is worried that “biopirates” are eyeing the country’s “mega-biodiversity” – consisting of land and marine ecosystems, rainforests, flora and fauna – that is the second largest in the world, after Brazil.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment has estimated that the country’s medicinal plants alone are worth US$14.6 billion if they were marketed as finished products. It has placed “biopiracy” high on the legislative agenda for this year.

The term biopiracy was coined in 1993 by the Rural Agricultural Foundation International, a Canada-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). Biopiracy is broadly defined as the illegitimate appropriation or commercialisation of genetic resources and associated knowledge.

The Indonesian government believes that the Japanese cosmetic giant, Shiseido, had illegally patented the chemicals found within one of the country’s principal medicinal plants – the traditional jamu herb.

Indonesian groups such the Bio Tani Foundation/PAN Indonesia had launched a campaign against the appropriation of traditional knowledge. In January 2002, Shiseido withdrew some of its patents at the European Patent Office.

In December 2017, Indonesian lawmakers agreed to begin deliberation on a bill on natural resources conservation – by placing the bill on the parliament’s 2018 priority list of the National Legislation Programme – following concerns about attempts to steal genetic resources.

Indonesian government officials believe that their claim to jamu is based on the fact that since ancient times, Indonesian emperors used these herbs which were prescribed by herbal doctors to maintain good health and vigour. Found in more than a thousand formulations, jamu was the property of the Indonesian kings until the modern era when it was finally released for public sale.

Trouble began when Shiseido double-patented chemicals found within jamu in Japan and Europe. Among the formulas patented by Shiseido were anti-ageing agents made from sambiloto (andrographis panicurata) and kemukus (piper cubeba), and hair tonic from Javanese chili.


According to Damos Dumoli Agusman, director general for legal affairs and international treaties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, in the 1990s the Japanese cosmetic giant Shiseido patented 11 different compounds of jamu. Indonesian traditional farmers were in danger of violating Japanese patent rights, which made them liable to pay costs for plants that they had been growing for centuries.

“This biopiracy by Shiseido means they’ve stolen what belonged to our traditional healers, stolen our farmers knowledge, their seeds and systems,” explains Riza Tjahjadi, chairman of the Pesticide Action Network.

The former Indonesian State Minister of Environment, Sonny Keraf, has described biopiracy as a new form of imperialism.

“It’s ridiculous if we have to pay to use herbs growing in our land which we’ve used since ancient times,” he argued.

In early 2017, the Indonesian Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education issued regulations to prevent suspected theft of genetic resources by foreign researchers disguising themselves as tourists. It was worried that foreigners were exploiting local genetic resources without getting the consent of the Indonesian government or providing fair compensation to Indonesia as stipulated in the Nagoya Protocol of 2010 on access to genetic resources, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their use.

The protocol is a supplementary agreement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. Indonesia has ratified both of them.

The ministerial regulation stipulates that the government will no longer recommend foreign researchers to conduct research in less-explored regions that are prone to theft of natural resources such as Papua and Maluku islands.

The ministry’s Secretary of Foreign Research Permits, Sri Wahyono, stated: “Right now, the common modus operandi includes ecotourism, where foreigners come to Indonesia with a visa on arrival to visit our protected forest areas and sanctuaries. Some of them have been caught red-handed (stealing resources).

“In the past, Indonesia only issued around 200 research permits per year. Since 2010, we issued around 500 permits. The interest is growing, especially in biodiversity, such as zoology, botany and marine biology.”

Rosichon Ubaidillah, the head of zoology at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said: “Foreign researchers may have collected research materials legally, but what they have been doing is not always ethical.”

LIPI had to cancel scientific cooperation with a German institution in 2016 because the latter refused to change an agreement to transfer material that LIPI believed was disadvantaging Indonesia.

The scholar Kayayuki Motohashi, however, argues in his book Global Business Strategy that “while Shiseido was in no way in conflict with the patent laws, as a result of this publicity, the situation developed into a movement to boycott Shiseido products”, and as a result Shiseido relinquished its patents relating to Indonesia.

In Thailand, Shiseido has created a South-east Asian research centre within its local subsidiary, Shiseido Thailand, where it conducts research on the application of herbs found in the region.

The Indonesian parliament finally passed the draft new Patent Law in July 2016, introducing several new provisions to protect local genetic resources and rewards for inventors. The new law provides an obligation to specify the origin of genetic resources (GR) and traditional knowledge (TK) in the descriptions of those inventions derived from indigenous sources. The reasons for specifying origin of GR and TK in the descriptions are to avoid any claims made by other countries to the GR and TK, and to support benefit sharing.


According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Indonesia is one of 17 “megadiverse” countries of the world, possessing 10 per cent of the world’s flowering species. Its 17,000 islands are home to about 12 per cent of the world’s mammals (515 species), ranking it second after Brazil, and about 16 per cent of the world’s reptiles (781 species). Its 35 species of primate place Indonesia fourth in the world. It has 17 per cent of the total species of birds (1,592 species) and 270 species of amphibians, which place Indonesia in the fifth and sixth ranks, respectively, in the world.

Indonesia has 566 national parks covering 36.06 million ha, and 76 marine protected areas (13.52 million ha). Its marine protected areas comprise 4.58 million ha which are managed by the local governments.

Indonesia’s active approach shows the way for other developing countries to protect their own genetic resources that have substantial market value.

Harish Mehta


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