Bill would license use of biodiversity
The measure targets commercial use of isle plant and wildlife
Researchers looking to make money off products derived from Hawaii's unique plants and wildlife would have to pay the state first under a new bill in the Legislature.
Researchers would need to apply for a permit and report any discoveries to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. If a company plans to use its discovery commercially, it would need to enter into a licensing agreement with the state.
Revenues from the licensing could then be used for conservation or, if the samples are taken from lands that belonged to the former Hawaiian Kingdom, placed in a special ceded-lands account.
"As the law stands now, people can come into Hawaii. They can discover things. They can commercialize things based on the biodiversity found only in this state. And they have no obligation to share any benefits with anyone in Hawaii," said Kevin Kelly, managing director for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research at the University of Hawaii.
The bill would provide the state with the ability to participate in and benefit from that process, he said.
The measure comes after several years of contentious hearings on bills that put limits and even moratoriums on such research.
The bill discussed Thursday in the House Committee on Economic Development and Business Concerns was authored by the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Science & Technology Council.
Rep. Glenn Wakai (D, Moanalua Valley-Salt Lake), vice chairman of the committee, said the proposed law could have the added benefit of helping the state keep better track of what projects are going on in the islands.
The DLNR, however, said it had concerns that the bill was written too broadly and could be interpreted to apply to others who make money off the state's resources, such as fishermen.
Annelle Amaral, president of Ahahui Siwila Hawaii O Kapolei, said she also would like to see a clearer role for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in determining who receives permits and what happens to revenues.
Under the state's current system, researchers hoping to find organisms with qualities they could sell commercially, known as bioprospectors, apply for the same permits as any other researchers. With a permit in hand, a researcher has few other obligations to the state.
And while the possibility of making a worthy discovery is rare and bioprospecting is still a nascent industry here, the profits could be significant. The industry is also growing.
According to United Nations University, 62 percent of all cancer drugs were created from bioprospecting discoveries.
The goal of a law that clearly states Hawaii's ownership of its resources is not only to provide revenue to the state, but also to let prospecting companies know what their legal rights are.
Companies don't want to invest in a product only to have the state sue them later, Kelly said.
Countries around the globe, including Russia and Costa Rica, have become well-known for their bioprospecting laws and the ability to use their own biodiversity to promote research.
But no U.S. state has adopted legislation specifically for bioprospecting, Kelly said.
In the past, the practice has been fraught with controversy after some companies trampled the local environment in an effort to get more of the materials they needed or stole knowledge from indigenous people.
"I think that's largely behind us now," Kelly said. "People won't invest in things that have been pirated."