By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government yesterday moved to finally plug a loophole that has enabled foreign exploitation of The Bahamas’ biological and genetic resources without this nation earning a cent.
The Biological Resources and Traditional Knowledge Bill, tabled in the House of Assembly by Romauld Ferreira, pictured, minister of the environment and housing, seeks to establish a regulatory, permitting and revenue-sharing regime with companies seeking to research and exploit this nation’s marine genetic resources.
The legislation thus aims to close a gap identified in an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report, revealed by Tribune Business in October 2020 last year, which exposed that the Bahamian people are earning nothing from foreign exploitation of resources that have produced over 100 “new natural products”.
The document, which accompanied the IDB’s recent $200m loan to the government, disclosed that this nation was gaining zero commercial and financial benefits from the research activity it permits annually in the waters of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
This is despite the granting of more than 100 research permits per year, most of which are to institutions based in the US and Canada. The report revealed that many of these research initiatives had resulted in patent applications being made in the US, “a large cluster” of which covered “a marine microbe” found in Bahamian waters and its use in the lucrative global pharmaceutical industry.
The IDB said one of the “biomolecules” generated from this Bahamian microbe strain had made it to “clinical phase II” drug trials in 2014, but the failure of successive administrations to establish a commercial and regulatory regime to ensure this nation gains a just share of any resulting revenues/profit from such exploitation of its resources has deprived it of a potentially “significant” income source.
The Bill introduced by Mr Ferreira creates an Access to Benefit Sharing (ABS) committee that will review and make recommendations on whether to approve research and development applications by companies seeking to exploit The Bahamas’ genetic resources.
The committee, which will be staffed by civil servants from multiple government agencies, will recommend to the Competent National Authority - the entity in charge of all matters related to biological diversity - whether to approve such permits, and provide advice on the revenue/benefit sharing terms agreed with private sector entities.
Any earnings generated for The Bahamas will be placed in a so-called Benefit Trust Fund for the public’s benefit. While the legislation introduces more government bodies and bureaucracy, it also sets out a regulatory regime complete with penalties for those who illegally exploit the country’s biological and genetic resources.
And individuals and companies involved in previously unregulated “bioprospecting or other genetic prospecting related work in The Bahamas, including all registered resulting industrial property, will commit “an offence” if they fail to disclose this when applying for permits under the new regulatory regime.
“The Bahamas used to issue over 100 research permits per year, about 90 percent of which were issued to foreign institutions (generally from the US and Canada) enabling access to genetic resources, mostly in the marine environment,” the IDB report said.
“A study published in 2012 calculated that 125 new natural products were discovered in EEZ in the 2000s. A preliminary review of the patent databases of the US revealed that a significant number of research initiatives conducted in The Bahamas applied for US patents.
“A large cluster of patents covers a marine microbe originating from The Bahamas, the production of biomolecules with this specific Bahamian strain and their use as pharmaceuticals. For one of these molecules, clinical phase II tests were announced to start in 2014,” the report continued.
“These inventions based on a Bahamian genetic resource might be developed into commercially successful drugs with significant revenues. Due to the lack of a regulatory access and benefit (ABS) regime in The Bahamas and appropriate contractual provisions, almost no benefits are flowing back to the country from these and other cases of utilisation and commercialisation of Bahamian genetic resources.”
With The Bahamas’ foreign exchange earnings having almost completely dried-up due to the COVID-19 pandemic and tourism industry shutdown, which have left the Public Treasury in a similar cash-strapped state, it behooves the Government to seek out, identify and extract such revenue-earning opportunities as the one potentially identified by the IDB.
The IDB confirmed then that the Government is moving to create an ABS policy framework that would allow The Bahamas to share in the financial benefits from research, development, innovation and commercialisation of its marine microbe assets as part of its economic diversification strategy via the so-called “Blue Economy”.
The Blue Economy involves maximising economic growth and environmental sustainability through controlled exploitation of this nation’s marine industry, and the IDB revealed that the Government is in the process of establishing an Inter-Departmental Blue Economy Co-ordination Group to drive this effort.
Headed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources, the Group will have input from academics as well as the private and public sectors, and be responsible for co-ordinating agencies with responsibilities for ocean affairs and marine resources.