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Protect our national biodiversity resources from bio-piracy

Tuesday January 15 2019

Forest in Kenya.

Kenya is among the few African countries endowed with a huge biodiversity potential. But for lack of strict regulatory mechanisms, crafty individuals and research institutions continue to siphon out genetic materials of immense value. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PASCAL MWANDAMBO
By PASCAL MWANDAMBO
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Kenya is among the few African countries endowed with a huge biodiversity potential. But for lack of strict regulatory mechanisms, crafty individuals and research institutions continue to siphon out genetic materials of immense value.

Africa’s biodiversity potential is estimated at $400 billion (Sh32 trillion), largely through bio-prospecting — the search, development and commercialisation of biodiversity. Sadly, most of it ends up in the pockets of the industrialised countries that produce the finished products.

The piracy did not begin recently; it dates back to the colonial times. An example is the highly-endangered mwingo tree, found in Sagalla Forest, Taita-Taveta County, which is among the hardest species known and was once used as a substitute for steel in the manufacture of railway sleepers.

EXTINCTION

The British colonial government exploited the trees to the hilt, shipping them to England where it was, reportedly, used to make royal furniture. Ashamed of leaving Sagalla bereft of vegetation cover, it replaced the indigenous mwingo with the fast-growing exotic trees, which still adorn the awe-inspiring hill.

Then there is the wanton exploitation of sandalwood from Taita forests, thanks to the connivance of the local administration and unscrupulous traders. Consignments are spirited across the border to Tanzania, where the wood, said to have immense medicinal value, fetches relatively high prices.

Destruction of a species at a higher pace than the rate of reproduction is a sure road to extinction. Yet no effort is made to replenish these rare trees.

In fact, these are not the only endemic biodiversity species in Taita forests. Research has shown that Ngangao, Mbololo and Mwambirwa forests harbour plant and animal species that are not found anywhere else.

These include the back-fanged snake, wild banana and wild coffee (botanical name Coffea fadenii), as well as three butterfly species, two bird species, a tree (the African violet) and a nematode.

These unique biodiversity strains, besides being of immense economic value, might also hold the key to research on the evolution of species.

UNIQUE STRAINS

Perhaps the best illustration of the immense value of Kenyan biodiversity is the extremophile microbe that is endemic to Lake Bogoria. The microbe produces an enzyme used by the American pharmaceutical firm Procter and Gamble, for whom it’s estimated to generate about $38bn (Sh3 trillion) annually.

The enzyme from the microbe is also used in American textile factories in the conversion of jeans materials into the popular “stonewash” shades, where it’s estimated to rake in about $3 billion (Sh240 billion) annually.

Given the clandestine manner in which these resources are exploited, much of these benefits hardly trickle back.

This calls for the enactment and adoption of strict patent laws to protect and jealously guard them. The laws should, among other things, make bio-piracy a criminal offence.

Eventually, bio-prospecting would be put on a sound footing to boost research and industrial development as envisaged in Vision 2030.

Mr Mwandambo is a freelance journalist, blogger and editor of an online publication. ndam[email protected]

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