A new UN treaty is intended to put a further stop to biopiracy. Companies that use traditional knowledge and plants or other organisms from indigenous peoples to develop products will in future have to disclose their origin when applying for patents.

The aim is to prevent traditional knowledge from being exploited for profit without involving the original experts. The treaty, which was approved in Geneva on Friday, is the first time that the concerns of indigenous groups have been taken into account in an international agreement on patent regulations, as the UN Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo) announced. Many have used such knowledge for thousands of years.

“We have made history today,” said WIPO Director General Daren Tang when the text of the treaty was ready. The treaty was negotiated for more than 20 years. It will come into force when 15 of the 193 WIPO member states have ratified it.

How traditional knowledge is exploited

Thousands of cosmetics, medicines and other products are developed from natural products. This includes, for example, the sweetener from the stevia plant, which has always been used for sweetening in South America.

The faded jeans effect is achieved using bleach that uses an enzyme that can work under extreme conditions. It comes from salt lakes in Kenya or Tanzania in Africa. In many cases, knowledge about the effects of plants or organisms is known through studies and then exploited by companies to develop products without the local people having any benefit.

What the new contract provides

The use of such resources is actually already regulated under the International Convention on Biological Diversity. However, not everyone adheres to it and many countries have little means to effectively protect their traditional knowledge. The Wipo Treaty is seen as an additional opportunity to achieve justice.

In the future, companies will have to publish the origin of material and knowledge when applying for patents. The countries concerned can then check whether the companies had all the required permits and whether appropriate contracts for use were concluded.