The European Union (EU) has recently passed a bill protecting the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities by ensuring that companies respect indigenous stewardship over natural resources and traditional knowledge about their uses.

The Bill was prompted by a European Parliament report urging the EU to pass measures to protect indigenous traditional knowledge and ratify the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. The Nagoya Protocol—a supplementary agreement to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that was first adopted by Japan in October 2013—needs to be ratified by 50 member states of the UN General Assembly before it can be entered into force. So far, 30 member states have ratified the Protocol.

The UNCBD grants states sovereign rights over their biological resources and requires industries to receive informed consent—granted on mutually agreed terms—from indigenous populations before they can utilize biological resources and/or traditional knowledge about those resources from the region.

While there are international agreements to discourage patents claiming exclusive rights to the genetic resources and traditional knowledge of indigenous communities—like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (1983), which states that “plant genetic resources are a common heritage of mankind and consequently should be available without restriction”—there are no real mechanisms to enforce them.

The Nagoya Protocol introduces a new legal framework for granting patents that requires applicants to disclose the origins of the ingredients in their products and to help developing countries establish the institutions necessary to protect their stewardship over, and to benefit from the use of, their genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Based on the Nagoya Protocol, the EU bill requires industries to share equitably the benefits reaped from the use of the resources and traditional knowledge with the communities providing the resources and knowledge. The bill authorizes sanctions to be leveled against companies that fail to comply.

“Ninety percent of genetic resources are in the South, and ninety percent of the patents are in the North,” said Green Member of the European Parliament Sandrine Bélier.

When companies patent the research and development processes derived from traditional knowledge, indigenous communities risk losing access to native resources.

Moreover, biopiracy threatens both local and global food security by decimating the biodiversity of lands and, consequently, food production levels. According to the UNCBD, "Seventy percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend directly on biodiversity for their survival and well-being."

The EU is expected to formally ratify the Nagoya Protocol in October at the 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in South Korea.