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Thursday, March 18, 2004



House bill would halt
UH ‘bioprospecting’
of native species


Native Hawaiian organizations are backing legislation to prohibit the University of Hawaii from transferring the state's stake in discoveries stemming from biotechnology research on Hawaiian plants and animals.

Conflict over so-called bioprospecting, the research of plants and microbes to develop new products, arose last year after UH signed a contract with Diversa Corp., a San Diego-based biotechnology company.



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Critics said UH was selling off the state's biodiversity and giving up potential ceded-land revenues by granting Diversa exclusive rights to any of its discoveries.

House Bill 2034, HD2, prohibits the sale or transfer of biological resources taken from public lands except for farming and research of products not endemic to Hawaii. It is pending in the Senate.

Rep. Ezra Kanoho, House Water, Land Use and Hawaiian Affairs Committee chairman, said yesterday he will amend a similar bill passed last year by the Senate (SB 643, SD1) to remove an exemption for the university.

"The university took patents out on approximately 100 species and sold those patents and in effect said, 'No one else can harvest those species; no one else has title to those species.' You can't do that. Those species belong in the public domain," Kanoho said.

UH Interim Vice President for Research James Gaines said Diversa wants to study sludge taken near a volcano. The state agreed to provide the sludge in exchange for an interest in any of Diversa's discoveries. He said UH has not received any money from Diversa and has yet to provide the company any material.

"It's not like they wanted the beak of an endangered bird or something like that," he said, "We aren't doing sinister things."

While most of UH's agreements reserve the state's interest in whatever discoveries are derived from research on Hawaiian plants and animals, there are times the university gives up its interest in exchange for money for scholarships or other research, Gaines said.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. sees the selling of the state's biological resources as a possible threat to cultural practices and gathering rights.

"Our existing work for the protection of trust lands and protection and expansion of traditional customary rights is impacted by bioprospecting in Hawaii," said Lea Kanehe, NHLC attorney.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said the board is concerned about the possible abuse of Hawaiian culture and native Hawaiian practices, and is getting involved -- "in the abundance of caution and abundance of suspicion."

The House version of the bill would also establish a Bioprospecting Advisory Commission to develop regulations for the preservation and use of biological diversity and biological resources on public lands.

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