Bio-pirates raid trees in the swamps of Borneo

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The Bintangor tree, which grows in swampy ground in the Malaysian part of Borneo, may have its uses. But it certainly doesn't look like it is worth £250m.

The Bintangor tree, which grows in swampy ground in the Malaysian part of Borneo, may have its uses. But it certainly doesn't look like it is worth £250m.

It looks like what it is – a rubber tree that grows to a height of about 30 feet, with a diameter of five inches and long waxy leaves. The native Dyak people, who still live in the jungle in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, know that the poisonous latex that oozes from it can be used for stunning fish, and that a poultice made from the bark will ease headaches and skin rashes. But, even after an American scientist turned up and took away samples, none of the Dyaks realised what vast potential riches the tree contains.

But, if tests carried out in the United States are to be believed, the humble bintangor contains buried treasure: a treatment for HIV and Aids. Clinical trials show that a drug called Calanolide A, originally extracted from the tree's latex, reduces the levels of the Aids virus in the blood. It also works against tuberculosis.

The drug is several years away from being sold commercially, but if it is – and if it is as profitable as other anti-HIV drugs – it could earn as much as £250m a year. And the Dyaks may not see a penny.

The discovery of Calanolide A in the jungles of Sarawak is one of the great successes of a new profession: bio-prospecting. Just as treasure hunters in the past panned silt on the beds of streams in search of gold, so bio-prospectors sift through living matter in search of equally lucrative commodities. Their raw material may be trees, plants, shrimps, butterflies, spiders, toads or microbes in soil. The treasure they seek may be a hardy strain of rice, a flea treatment for pet dogs or a new kind of dye.

But the most lucrative area of biosprospecting is in pharmaceuticals, and it is here too that the most pointed ethical questions are being raised.

To growing numbers of people, in Sarawak and around the world, much of what passes for scientific research is actually an act of biological copyright infringement perpetrated upon native people – not so much bio-prospecting as bio-piracy. The issues are legally, ethically and politically complex, and in Sarawak they are being debated fiercely.

The vast mass of the Earth's most biologically-diverse material is found in developing countries – above all in tropical rain forests along the equatorial belt of the Amazon, central Africa and south-east Asia. But, ironically, the scientific expertise necessary to exploit it is overwhelmingly found in the developed world.

In the 1980s – when Calanolide A was discovered by a pharmacologist working for the US National Cancer Institute – scientists were free to come and go. Then in 1993 the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into effect. The convention, which has been adopted by 179 countries – the US being the most striking non-signatory – recognises the sovereign right of each country to regulate the use of its own biological resources. It is on this basis that the government of Sarawak founded the Sarawak Biodiversity Council (SBC) to monitor and license bio-prospectors and stamp out bio-pirates.

In the two and half years of its existence, the SBC has received about 100 requests for prospecting licences, ranging from a nursery business that wanted pitcher plants to a scientist seeking to gather DNA from the eyes of snakes. Ninety per cent are granted, although often with strict provisos. In all cases, the foreign researchers are required to share their knowledge with the state of Sarawak.

In such a vast rainforest, bio-poachers are hard to catch, but there have been a couple of successful stings. In 1999, a group of Japanese were caught gathering tropical butterflies, and last year American potholers were nabbed with 600 tiny creatures taken from caves. The intention to exploit the finds for commercial use is hard to prove – but both parties were fined and asked to leave.

Even though Calanolide A was discovered before the CBD came into effect, it has turned out well for Sarawak. The pharmaceutical company that synthesised the drug has entered into a joint venture with the government, meaning that 50 per cent of any future profits will return to Sarawak. Other finds may be imminent. Sarawak's chief minister, Taib Mahmud, recently announced the discovery of a jungle substance that may provide a treatment for prostate cancer.

But not everyone is happy. "The people who make money out of it will be the usual ones. Politicians, rich businessmen. It won't be the local people," says Mark Bujang, of the Borneo Resource Institute, a non-governmental grouplobbying for the Dyaks' rights.

Mr Bujang fears bio-prospecting will be like logging. Although the state government promises benefits for all, the people at the bottom suffer the disadvantages but not the gains. "We're not just talking about financial reward, but development, basic necessities like clinics and schools," Mr Bujang said. "Local people could be trained to do this kind of research themselves and apply the research to their own traditional knowledge."

But where does traditional knowledge intersect with scientific knowledge? The Dyaks may have used the bintangor tree for their headaches, but they would never have isolated Calanolide A. "What the communities want is a fair share from the benefits that arise from research," Mr Bujang said. "Their land has been taken away, then their forest has been taken away. Now they take away their traditional medicine."