Third World Network Briefing Paper for CSD7, No.1, 1999

THE HIDDEN COSTS OF THE ‘NEW’ TOURISMS -  A focus on biopiracy

By Anita Pleumarom

British environmentalist Chris Lang, who has been focussing on local communities’ rights and ecological justice issues in Asia, had a shocking experience when he participated in a conservation research tour programme to Vietnam in 1993, organized by the UK-based non-profit organization Society for Environmental Exploration (SEE). He found that during the ten-week expedition, operating under the name Frontier, volunteers collected a wide range of plant and insect samples in the forests of Tam Dao Nature Reserve and Ba Be National Park, without appropriate permission from park officials, and took them out of the country.

   According to Frontier’s web-page, “the Frontier initiative brings ordinary people to the forefront of conservation research, enabling them to become involved in vital scientific work.” But after witnessing Frontier’s activities in Vietnam, Lang started wondering whether he had joined a programme for eco-tourists interested in biodiversity conservation or a biopiracy initiative.

   Governments of many Asian countries are now considering tourism as the saviour of their ailing economies and have identified several new forms of tourism – such as eco-tourism, biodiversity friendly tourism, agro-tourism, and health tourism – as lucrative niche markets. These ‘new’ tourisms, they argue, will generate jobs and income for the rural poor and help launch a new system to balance development and conservation. Meanwhile, they ignore that through this kind of tourism promotion they are paving the way for other activities, which most likely result in economic losses that go far beyond any tourism benefits.

   Due to the unprecedented travel and tourism boom over the last decades, the smuggling and illicit trade in valuable flora and fauna has already become a multi-billion-business.  Biopirates, often posing as innocent tourists, steal local plants and animals during their trips in foreign lands and conveniently pass through the nothing-to-declare green channels of customs at airports to take them home or sell them abroad. The World Customs Organization in cooperation with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has published a brochure to raise awareness on this issue. At the 1998 World Travel Mart in London, officials warned that customs authorities and the travel and tourism industry need to be fully educated on how much damage the illicit movement of items and people across borders can do to societies, cultures and the environment. 

   The business with stolen and smuggled flora and fauna generally requires little investment and yields enormous profits, while the risks in terms of discovery and penalty are very low. However, it costs global taxpayers huge amounts of money and plays a significant role in the depletion and extinction of many species around the world.

   By questioning SEE’s Frontier tour programme, Lang has taken a step forward to establish the links between tourism and biopiracy. Confronted with Lang’s concerns, Jason Rubens, the former Director of Operations at Frontier, suggested that local communities at Tam Dao in the north of Vietnam would benefit from the activities of the Frontier initiative whose purpose was to gather information about the use of plants and “to investigate the feasibility of developing  medicinal plant cultivation amongst the Vietnamese residents of Tam Dao and surrounding villages.” But Lang found that this is all happening without the knowledge and consent of local people, or any safeguards to ensure that local communities are adequately compensated for the exploitation of their biological resources and wisdom. During his expedition, he argued, “none of the Frontier volunteers spoke Vietnamese, no interpreter was available for most of the expedition, none of the volunteers or expedition leaders had any training in tropical botany, and no attempt was made to find out how the local community currently used the plants they collected from the forest.”

    The recent tremendous interest in Western societies about natural remedies has prompted transnational corporations (TNCs) to hunt for indigenous plants to produce drugs and cosmetics and to exploit related traditional knowledge in Asian countries. Studies have revealed that more than 40 per cent of Western pharmaceutical products contain Asian plant extracts, but these Asian countries have earned little, if anything, in return.

 Official Frontier publications reveal that during their expeditions to Vietnam, Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique, volunteers collect plant samples which are sent for classification to more than 40 institutions worldwide, including Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, the Natural History Museum and Missouri Botanical Gardens. Many of the specimens are being analysed for the treatment of cancer and other diseases. According to Frontier’s newsletter, the pharmaceutical industry is interested in its work, and their initiative receives funding and donations from Sigma Pharmaceuticals, Robinson Healthcare, Smith and Nephew, Beiersdorf UK, 3M Health Care, Pfizer, and Rhone-Poulenc Rorer.

   In addition, there is the possibility that the Society for Environmental Exploration has had links with the Foundation for Ethnobiology (FEB) because when Conrad Gorinsky registered the FEB as a UK charity in 1988, the witness to his signature on FEB’s Deed of Trust was Eiblies Fanning, who was soon to become director of the SEE. NGOs and local communities in Thailand, Brazil, Guyana and Europe have accused Gorinsky and FEB of biopiracy and unfair patenting of plant extracts. Fanning, however, has so far refused to reply to Lang’s questions regarding the relations between SEE and FEB. Nor has she wanted to comment on questions about the benefits she and her family have allegedly derived through three UK-registered companies whose sole purpose appears to be the extraction of profits from SEE’s Frontier project. Fanning is also the director of Frontier Environmental Ltd, Frontier Promotion Ltd. and Tarahill Ltd. She admitted that Frontier Environmental for example is a “marketing company”, providing “specific services to the Society [for Environmental Exploration] at market value”, which let Lang conclude that “by setting up separate companies to carry out commercial services for SEE, Fanning’s companies can profit from Frontier expeditions, without violating SEE’s non-profit status.”

   This is worrisome, particularly considering that Frontier has given the impression of an initiative genuinely interested in community-based eco-tourism and joined a network of international NGOs in Vietnam, which has for the last two years worked on a ‘Capacity Building for Sustainable Tourism Initiatives Project’ under the auspices of IUCN in Hanoi and fostered relations with tourism-focused groups worldwide. 

    Meanwhile, the menace of biopiracy seems to spread unprecedentedly as the biotechnology industry is sending scouts around the world to discover genes that may have commercial value for the drug and food industry. TNCs involved in genetic engineering are particularly interested in varieties of plants and seeds, as well as unusual genes and cell lines of indigenous peoples, and once acquired, they claim intellectual property rights (IPR) on them.

   Asian scientists and officials say that lack of control and loopholes in existing laws make biopiracy easy and as a result, their countries are being robbed of millions of dollars that is rightfully theirs. They also argue that if TNCs succeed in getting international regulations on patents and IPR amended in their favour under the World Trade Organization’s scheme, their countries will be even more disadvantaged.

   Recently, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand expressed her concern over biotechnological research, including matters relating to biopiracy, patents and IPR. “We know all too well how our local wisdom can be used to develop innovative products. We must be careful of biopiracy and protect our resources,” she was quoted as saying at a seminar organized by the National Science and Technology Development Agency in Bangkok.

   However, when it comes to tourism, all concerns over the increasing privatization of biodiversity and the far-reaching implications of biopiracy appear to be swept away or played down. Thailand’s Agriculture Ministry, for example, has embarked on a policy to actively sup-port eco-tourism and agro-tourism in the context of the current ‘Amazing Thailand’ campaign. Dismissing environmentalists’ longstanding criticisms regarding the development of new tourism products within the country’s national parks, Agriculture Minister Pongpol Adireksarn recently said: “…any development would focus on open areas of forests where the needs of the public could be accommodated without spoiling nature. Unfortunately, non-governmental organizations appear to have no intention of listening to the truth of my plan.”

   The ministry’s Department of Agriculture Extension has also begun to set up so-called agro-tourism centers, to enable tourists to visit forest and farming communities and to learn about local herbs in particular. This agro-tourism project is scheduled from 1998 to 2001 and especially targets foreign tourists who prefer to experience Thailand’s countryside. The first agro-tourism center officially opened last November at the Hua Mae Kham hilltribe community in Chiang Rai province, and accommodation, homestay and farmstay are expected to be introduced by the end of this year.

   In addition, the Public Health Ministry has teamed up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in a campaign that will focus on ‘amazing’ health package tours and the use of Thai herbs. Last January, Health Minister Korn Dabaransri, announced the TAT would be asked to distribute pamphlets promoting tours called “Seven Days in Thailand For Your Health”. This special tourism campaign is part of an ambitious plan by the minister to introduce and promote local herbal products on the world market. It would focus on attracting business executives and wealthy credit card users, Korn explained. “Westerners are health conscious. Herb research is done in the West and so is the marketing. But as the raw materials come from our side of the world, why can’t we create a market here?” he added.

  However, the Thai Traditional Medicine Institute (TTMI) under the ministry, which is now working on this health tour programme, which will include the offering of herbal foods and drinks and traditional Thai massage, has already come under attack because it organized similar trips, taking tourists into the forests to provide them with knowledge about indigenous plants. Such tours, concerned parties said, would instead give abusers the opportunity to exploit local wisdom for the sake of interested foreign corporations. TTMI director Pennapha Sapcharoen tried to play down the issue, insisting the new health package tours would be designed in a way to prevent any exploitation. But she did not elaborate on how to deal with abuses, which are likely to occur. Critics say, Thailand still does not have adequate laws to protect local knowledge and rights, nor to prevent the unfair patenting of life forms.

   There is also growing awareness in India that the tourism industry is set to exploit and debase traditional medical science. For instance T.G. Jacob writes in his book Tales of Tourism from Kovalam, South India, about the “touristic perversion of Ayurveda”:

   “The idiocy of the situation is very striking. Ayurveda is thousands of years old as a medical science, and it has a highly disciplined theory and practice. One can never take Ayurvedic treatment in a light-hearted manner or as a transitory tool for pleasure. In Kovalam its only function is as a tool for pleasure….

   “Agasthyavanam, a tourist destination about 45 km from Kovalam, is facing devastation. The place is very significant in Keralam because it is a fascinating herbal garden where more than 300 rare species thrive in their natural habitat. Reports state that the tourists are marauding this jungle, though legal restrictions are formally in force regarding the entry of tourists. But the gods do not seem to be bothered about such superfluous regulations, and they are not only littering the place with shit and plastic, but also plundering exotic plants. Many of them are probably working for the multinational pharmaceutical companies, but it could also be a fad. Whichever way, it is a disaster for Keralam and Ayurveda.”

   As it stands, there is an urgent need to foster informed public debate about the hidden costs of the new – ostensibly more benign – forms of tourism such as eco-tourism, biodiversity friendly tourism, agro-tourism, health tourism, etc.- and to mobilize capacities to effectively scrutinize and monitor related policies and projects. There is more information available now, which indicate that illicit and unethical activities in the context of these new tourisms lead to immense national losses, not only economically. The practice of biopiracy also clearly constitutes a violation of sovereignty and human rights because TNCs benefit from items stolen by visitors and from scientific research conducted without the knowledge or against the will of local people.

   There are good reasons to be skeptic. What does it mean, for example, when Thailand’s National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec), which is collaborating with giant biotechnology firms like Monsanto in promoting the use of genetic-modified organisms (GMO), gives financial support to eco-tourism research projects? Biotec is presently co-funding a project conducted by biologists of Chiang Mai University, called “The Exploration of the Different Species of the Birds in Mae Hong Son province and the Promotion of Eco-tourism”

In any event, governments and other concerned parties should be alerted and seriously ponder the question whether it is wise to indiscriminately promote tourism forms that facilitate the stealing and smuggling of local biological resources and traditional knowledge, before necessary legal frameworks and administrative mechanisms are in place to effectively combat abuses and exploitation.