Citizen upset over gov’t contract with pharmaceutical company  

  02 May 2017

By: L.N. Reklai

April 28, 2017 (Koror, Palau) An anonymous letter from a concerned citizen to this paper, expressed concern and upset over a contract signed by Republic of Palau(MNRET), Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) and a Pharma Mar pharmaceutical company from Spain to conduct bioprospecting of marine organisms within the Republic of Palau. [restrict]

The writer, signing the letter as “angry Palauan” alleges in the letter that the contract was secretly signed and that it gives “complete access to all the marine creatures from the reef and waters in Palau in return for money payments.”

“The pharmaceutical company wants to develop drugs from our reefs and islands for which they will make a very large amount of money (billions).  Our States are the people who own these resources and they are excluded from this agreement which has been negotiated without the knowledge of the States…” asserts the letter.

Responding to allegations, Dr. Yimnang Golbuu, Director of Palau Coral Reef Research Center stated, “The contract which we signed is not a secret and we had meetings with governors about it. In fact, the agreement we signed mandate the company to get all required permits and authorizations from the States where they plan to collect. Ngatpang State and Koror State are two of the states that denied their requests for permits and authorization.”

Copy of the ABS contract provided to this paper, states under section 2.6, “All permits, including the relevant State permits, licenses or permissions needed for the performance of the project will be independently evaluated by appropriate state or national government agency and this contract shall have no bearing on such evaluation.”

Dr. Golbuu claims that the agreement they signed with Pharma Mar should be the model used when permitting this type of research.

Bioprospecting is a very complicated process and to put together a proper agreement that spells out clearly who benefits every step of the way required greater understanding of the process, according to Golbuu.

“It is a lot like a lottery.  The chance of actually finding that right sample that can lead to cure or practical use is very very slim. Therefore, having a right ABS agreement in place is very important,” emphasized Golbuu.

“There are companies and groups here in Palau that have been collecting samples from Palau and sending it out without any such agreement for many years,” said Golbuu.

“This ABS (Access, Scientific Research, and Benefit Sharing) Agreement is the first one signed that addresses issues relating to access, scientific research and benefit sharing in the bioprospecting research,” added Dr. Golbuu.

According to Dr. Golbuu, the complex nature and limited understanding of scientific research and bioprospecting create concerns and worries for many people including resource owners.

In 2015, PICRC, Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment & Tourism, and OERC under the ABS Capacity Development Initiative workplan for the Pacific Region, conducted a workshop with relevant agencies and stakeholders.

According to the report from the workshop, the objective was for “ABS capacity development of key Palauan stakeholders, mapping of rights and obligations regarding Palau’s genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, review of relevant legislations and development of a set of draft ABS rules.”

From the workshop, stakeholders put together draft ABS rules for the Republic of Palau.  The vision statement with the draft rules states,” The Republic of Palau shall have a facilitative, effective, manageable and sustainable ABS system to generate and equitably distribute benefits arising from the use of Palau’s genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge and to use these benefits to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of Palau’s biodiversity and to uphold the rights of the custodians of Palau’s biodiversity.”

“The rules have not yet been formalized.  Unfortunately for us, we lost Senator Kesolei who represented OEK and was an active participant and proponent of this policy,” expressed Golbuu.

Regarding the payment part of the agreement, Dr. Golbuu stressed that in the agreement they include fees for the services the Center would provide for this project.  “The fees are for services that the Center renders to the company including advice from any of our researchers, any work we do to assist them such as going out in the field with them and for any information we provide them in the course of their work. We believe that is right thing to do.”

Furthermore, Dr. Golbuu stated that it is a standard for them to charge anyone fees for use of the Center and/or their staff.

“My biggest worry with this is that people will not be able to differentiate between bioprospecting research and other general research that greatly help us obtain important scientific information we need, such as researching health of marine life or reefs and so on.”

“Research and science are not bad things.  Information we get from research and science improve our lives,” stressed Dr. Golbuu. [/restrict]