Could Blockchain Technology Stop Biopiracy and Save the Rainforests?

Jeremy Hillpot
The Startup
Published in
6 min readMay 17, 2019

Instead of hooks for hands and cannonballs, “biopirates” use patent lawyers in big-city office suites to pilfer biological riches while destroying the rainforests of the world.

In this article, I’ll explain how blockchain technology — the technology responsible for bitcoin — could stop biopirates in their tracks and save the world’s rainforests. But first, it’s important to understand what biopiracy is and how it’s contributing to the merciless destruction of the Earth’s most precious natural resources.

The History of “Biopirates” and Rainforest Exploitation

Biopiracy is the modern equivalent of the Dutch settlers, who acquired the rights to Manhattan Island in 1626 for $24 worth of beads and trinkets. The native Americans who made this deal believed they were giving away hunting rights and shared use of their island. Instead, they lost everything.

“Bioprospectors” — as they’re called in the boardroom meetings of billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies — do something similar. They search for new drugs, plants and molecular compounds with specific properties in the remotest parts of the world. They interview local farmers, herbalists and medicine men to extract eons-old information about herbal remedies and chemical mixtures. Then they steal these precious riches for their own profit and gain.

Image by stardust19855 from Pixabay

The biopirate’s mission is to extract, patent and control the resources they take from indigenous communities. This allows them to earn the kind of money that would make a Rockefeller blush.

And what do the ancient caretakers of these precious resources get? They get to watch corporate loggers and cattle herders besiege and destroy their ancient homelands. Since the owners of the land cannot earn royalties by licensing the use of their biological resources, they have to sell their otherwise-worthless rainforest property to the highest bidder: Developers who end up mowing down the rainforest for logging and cattle-ranching purposes.

The sad part is how valuable this land could be to its owners —far more valuable than cattle land — if “biopirates” offered fair compensation for the wealth they extract.

How a 19th-Century Biopirate Singlehandedly Destroyed the Brazillian Rubber Industry

Last year, The Economist published a video explaining how biopirates are destroying the environment (and how blockchain technology could stop them). In the video, we’re warned of the “seed-pilfering” Sir Henry Wickham, who earned a king’s ransom off the backs of 19th-century Brazillian rubber farmers.

Brazil (Image by Paula Paulinha from Pixabay)

At the height of the Brazilian rubber boom, Sir Henry Wickham saw the opportunity to export rubber tree seeds from the Amazon and plant them in Southeast Asia. Wickham turned himself into “The Thief at the End of the World” by growing massive plantations that obliterated the Brazilian rubber industry.

Through the theft of natural resources, modern biopirates prevent the true owners of rainforest wealth (indigenous communities, landowners, and the governments of developing nations) from earning an income. This eliminates a tremendous financial incentive for local communities to preserve their natural environments.

Why It’s Hard to Stop Biopirates

Ever since the days of Wickham, hordes of biopirates have engaged in the relentless exploitation of natural resources found in rainforests all over the world. To stop this abuse, a group of 100 nations signed the Nagoya Protocol in 2010. Since then, the number of participants has grown to 116.

In case you’re wondering, the United States is not a member of the Nagoya Protocol. However, according to the Berkeley Journal of International Law in 2013, the United States was close to ratifying the agreement:

“President Obama has remained largely non-committal to seeking ratification of the Convention or to signing the Nagoya Protocol. However, there are signs that the administration may push to ratify the treaty before the end of President Obama’s second term, as indicated by the Obama Administration’s position on genetic resource cases before the Supreme Court.”

Nearly a decade since the Nagoya Protocol went into effect, the United States still hasn’t joined.

Nations participating in the Nagoya Protocol as of May 17, 2019 (from Openplant.org)

Nagoya participants agreed that countries of origin must receive a fair portion of the profits generated from their biological resources. The problem is, the Nagoya Protocol has been difficult to enforce. It’s too easy for biopirates to enter a remote area, extract undiscovered samples and patent them as their own. Nobody knows where the assets come from; nobody knows how they’re used, and nobody knows how much money is being made. Until the advent of blockchain technology, tracking rainforest assets has been next-to-impossible.

How Blockchain Technology Makes Tracking Rainforest Assets Easier

Identifying and cataloging rainforest assets is the first step to tracking them. That’s where blockchain technology — the tech behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin — comes in.

Visualization of a blockchain (Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

The blockchain technology that makes the bitcoin network possible creates an unalterable record of who has how many bitcoins. The ledger — impervious to hackers — offers its users a deep sense of safety: They never have to worry about a corrupt person stealing assets by hacking into the system and changing the record.

With a similarly immutable blockchain ledger, we can catalog the genetic origin of biological wealth found in rainforests. That way, the source of the assets will be known, and biopirates can’t step in and claim to have invented them.

A blockchain-based record of biological resources will legally empower local cultures to earn royalties from licensing. And this could create an immense financial incentive against selling rainforest lands to cattle ranchers and loggers.

The hopeful end result: Landowners will strive to preserve rainforest land as a source of wealth instead of destroying it.

The Earth Biogenome Project and the Amazon Bank of Codes

Three organizations — the Amazon Bank of Codes, the Earth Biogenome Project, and the Global Economic Forum — have partnered on an important blockchain mission to sequence the DNA signature of each piece of life in the Amazon within the next ten years. They plan to catalog this information on an immutable blockchain ledger.

An amazing presentation about the Earth Biogenome Project

If it’s an animal, vegetable or mineral — like frog DNA, snake venom, rare herbs, tropical fungi or exotic chemical compounds — the Amazon Bank of Codes will put it in a catalog that (1) identifies the indigenous owners; and (2) allows the owners to earn money by licensing these resources to scientists and businesses.

Eventually, the Amazon Bank of Codes will feed into a worldwide initiative known as the Earth Bank of Codes. When someone uses an asset found in the Bank of Codes, the rightful owners will receive fair compensation for the usage rights.

Without blockchain ledger technology, the Amazon Bank of Codes wouldn’t be possible. Now countries can record the unique DNA signatures of their biological assets on the blockchain. No matter how or where someone uses these assets in the future — the rightful owner will be known.

Could This Rain Forest-Saving Blockchain Agenda Work?

Image by Ambady Sasi from Pixabay

The Amazon Bank of Codes and Earth Bank of Codes could create a new economy to surpass the profits earned by tearing down rainforest lands for logging and cattle raising.

Do you think this could be enough to make biopirates walk the plank? Could the Earth Bank of Codes provide enough incentive to save the rainforests? Or, like so many well-intentioned ideas, will it merely create new ways of exploiting indigenous cultures and their rainforest lands?

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Jeremy Hillpot
The Startup

Jeremy’s background in stock fraud litigation and technology provides a unique perspective on tech, investing and related market trends (www.contentcrypto.io).