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Chennai, India

Companies Exploiting Biodiversity Ignore Benefit-sharing Rules in Indian State of Tamil Nadu

For years, corporate companies and commercial traders have allegedly been plundering the Indian state of Tamil Nadu’s rich biological resources and making windfall profits, while conveniently ignoring their “benefit sharing” obligations under India’s Biological Diversity Act of 2002.

Official records accessed by The New Indian Express revealed that at least 650 companies in the State have violated the Biological Diversity Act — which regulates the commercial use of bio-resources — and the ‘access and benefit-sharing’ (ABS) arrangement under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya Protocol, which insists on fair and equitable sharing of benefits from utilization of resources.

The companies have been regularly accessing and using bio-resources as raw materials, or trading them, without complying with the National Biodiversity Authority’s ABS guidelines of 2014.

Under these, every manufacturer is to pay 3-5% of the purchase price of resources, while every trader must pay 1-3% of the price.

For resources with high economic value such as sandalwood, and their derivatives, the benefit sharing may include an upfront payment of not less than 5%, as decided by the National Biodiversity Authority or the State Biodiversity Board.

However, most companies are yet to show any intent to comply, despite the Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Board sending multiple reminders.

Aside from being a cognizable and non-bailable offence under sections of the Biological Diversity Act, this has caused revenue losses of hundreds of thousands of rupees for the State. Some 677 such companies/traders have been warned.

“We have issued letters to all 677 companies, to which only 31 responded positively,” said Debasis Jana, secretary, Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Board. “Their applications to the National Biodiversity Authority are being processed and agreements will be signed with the respective Biodiversity Management Committees for ABS pay-outs.”

“Some companies claimed they don’t come under the purview of ABS,” added Jana. “Many did not even respond, while letters to 64 companies were returned as not deliverable.”

Jana said the board tried to persuade the companies to voluntarily register for the biological resources they are accessing, and pay the ABS amount. But as they are not falling in line, “the board is contemplating issuing legal notices and exploring the option of filing cases against whom there is substantial evidence,” he added.

Under the Biological Diversity Act, every panchayat (village council) in India must set up a Biodiversity Management Committee to manage access to local biodiversity.

Poor compliance with ABS guidelines in Tamil Nadu is also partly because the State did not notify the Tamil Nadu Biological Diversity Rules until 2017, after the National Green Tribunal passed strictures. Steps to constitute Biodiversity Management Committees and prepare People’s Biodiversity Registers were taken thereafter.

To date, there are 13,604 Biodiversity Management Committees and corresponding People’s Biodiversity Registers. The unregulated exploitation has put tremendous pressure on biological resources.

For instance, plants like Garcinia cambogia, and Garcinia indica, native to the Western Ghats and in high demand, are on the verge of extinction. Pharma companies use their extracts to produce drugs against cancer.

No scientific study has been done to assess the volume and type of Tamil Nadu’s biological resources used by the companies.

The German Agency for International Cooperation, which is working with Tamil Nadu on an ABS Partnership Project under the Indo-German Biodiversity Programme, is soon expected to publish results of its study on 20 highly-traded medicinal plants in the state. An official said some of the details of the study are worrisome.

“There is a medicinal plant called Gymnema sylvvestre, locally known as siru kurinjan, whose extract is used for diabetes control. The Forest Department has restricted its harvest since it has been over-exploited. However, pharma companies continue accessing it in large quantities without paying ABS. Most of the trade happens through the unorganized sector,” the official said.

The Madurai-based Covenant Centre for Development’s John Britto, who has worked with communities on conservation, collection, cultivation and trade of medicinal plants, said it is important for Tamil Nadu to protect such livelihoods.

“There are ethnic groups which depend solely on this collection,” he said. “The government should evolve a mechanism where ABS amount directly goes to Biodiversity Management Committees.”

Krishna Chaitanya produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by The New Indian Express on 17 December 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: Gymnema sylvestre has been over-exploited for its use in diabetes control / Credit: FarEnd2018 via Wikimedia Commons