By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister said legislation passed by the House of Assembly yesterday will halt "the plundering" of The Bahamas' genetic resources by foreign researchers without this nation earning one cent.
Romauld Ferreira, minister of the environment and housing, in leading off debate on the Biological Resources and Traditional Knowledge Bill, said that while The Bahamas was "a hotbed" for such resources it presently has "no laws to ensure fair and equitable trade benefits" are received for its people.
Disclosing that researchers and scientists have discovered "what they believe is the start of a cure for cancer" in Bahamian waters, the minister said marine genetics and biological resources were yet another area where this nation has failed to maximise the potential economic benefits from its natural resources.
Mr Ferreira added that the Biological Resources and Traditional Knowledge Bill will "prevent that kind of thing happening ever again", as he branded the former Christie administration's commercial dealings with Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) as "the worst arrangement in the history of oil exploration.
He said the Ministry of Environment and Housing, which has driven the passage of ten environmental laws, orders and sets of regulations during the Minnis administration's term in office, is "systematically building a framework to govern our natural resources".
"It's so important to put in a legislative framework to prevent different companies, different groups and different people with different relationships from having to meet different criteria for the same permits,' Mr Ferreira added. "That's a form of victimisation that we're opposed to. I certainly am.
"This particular Act is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation tabled in the House to govern our natural resources, particularly the marine environment of The Bahamas. The rich marine biodiversity of The Bahamas is of great economic value.
"Besides the value for food and for tourism in terms of recreational use, certain species have been recognised to have value to the medical and pharmaceutical industry, and over the past decades the waters of the country have been subject to plunder by researchers engaged in bioprospecting to extract various resources found in our country."
Mr Ferreira identified the antillogorgia elisabethae, or “sea whip”, as one such genetic resource given "its powerful healing ingredient" that provides both medical and cosmetic benefits. These, he added, included neutralising skin irritations resulting from sunburn; reducing the pain and swelling from acne; slowing down aging; and its possession of anti-inflammatory properties.
However, Mr Ferreira said: "Historically, we continued to face the challenge of addressing unlawful harvesting of our biodiversity given the vast expanse of our territorial waters, particularly when we take into consideration the existing enforcement capacity.
"One problem that is of increasing concern to our country is the unlawful harvesting of samples of marine life for both research and commercial purposes, because of a lack of functioning national laws and a lack of an institutional framework to better enable The Bahamas to effectively implement the provisions and the obligations set out in the Nagoya protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS).
"The current regulatory and institutional setting does not serve us. Thus we are unable to harness the potential value of our genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. There is an absence of both systematic information management and little co-ordination between agencies," Mr Ferreira added.
"Further many of our existing institutions which issue permits do not have sufficient resources to monitor research activities that they have permitted. Virtually no institutions receive monetary benefits from research conducted in our country. Further, the fee structure for permits is very low and often times free.
"There is no question that The Bahamas is a hotbed for researchers, but we have no comprehensive permitting process and no clear management process for research. More so, laws to ensure fair and equitable benefits for the country do not exist."
Mr Ferreira said the Government, realising that there were no controls, imposed an 18-month moratorium on the issuance of new scientific and research permits in The Bahamas from May 2019 until November 2020 in response to the rising number of applications.
While this "only impacted permit applications which sort to export resources", and was designed "to limit the entry and unlawful extraction of genetic resources of The Bahamas", the minister said the moratorium will remain in place until the Bill is passed into law.
The legislation seeks to establish a regulatory, permitting and revenue-sharing regime with companies seeking to research and exploit this nation’s marine genetic resources. It 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 them.
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 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 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."