The rosy periwinkle (Cantharanthus roseus), a tropical plant indigenous to Madagascar, is the source of two of the most important life-saving drugs used in modern medicine.
Vinblastine is used in the treatment of Hodgkin's disease, and Vincristine is a treatment for leukaemia.
Thanks to the rosy periwinkle, leukaemia victims now have a 99 per cent chance of remission and Hodgkin's disease sufferers a 70 per cent chance. In the 1960s, only one in five childhood leukaemia victims recovered, and a diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease nearly always meant imminent death.
There are at least 15 international pharmaceutical companies earning millions of dollars per year from the production of Vincristine and Vinblastine. Among them are Zürich-based Avrachem AG, and the Byron Chemical Company in New York.
Madagascar does not receive a share of the profits.
The Rosy Periwinkle is an example of a medicinal plant known to indigenous peoples. Multinational corporations have exploited this knowledge commercially, but critics say the indigenous people who made it all possible receive little or nothing in return.
The Convention on Biodiversity, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, was designed to combat this type of exploitation. It entered into force in December 1993.
As of October 1998, more than 170 countries had become parties. The United States has yet to ratify the convention.
Biological Diversity Convention
Prior to the convention, most countries considered genetic resources to be the common heritage of humankind, meaning that there was no law or moral obligation requiring a company that collected genetic material from another country to pay for access to that material.
By asserting the sovereignty of nations over their biodiversity, the convention explicitly recognises the right of countries to establish legislation regulating access to genetic resources and to charge for that access. Moreover, it requires that any company or country collecting biodiversity obtain the prior consent of the source country.
The convention will soon make it standard practice for collectors to pay a fee for access to biodiversity and to enter into contractual agreements with source countries, or institutions within those countries that allocate a share of royalties, or the patent itself, to the source country.
swissinfo, Julie Hunt