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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5556

Senator RIDGEWAY (9:42 PM) —I want to make a few comments in relation to the Plant Breeder's Rights Amendment Bill 2002 prior to the amendments being moved. I apologise to the chamber and to Senator Troeth for my lateness. I had not realised that the debate was to occur in the way it has. I want to speak to the amendments, and I note the comments made by my colleagues Senator Cherry and Senator Troeth. In particular, I want to focus on amendments that relate to the cultural and intellectual property rights of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and to acknowledge for the record the expert input we have had from people working in the field, particularly at the national and international levels. I want to make special mention of Henrietta Fourmile-Marrie, an Aboriginal woman who works with the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and who has written extensively on Indigenous property rights, and Ms Terri Janke and Mr Michael Davis.

In particular, I am concerned about some of the key things that I think are absent in relation to Indigenous issues and intellectual and cultural property rights and I will raise them in the committee stage. Essentially we will put forward a series of amendments that seek to try to extend the legislation to recognise and protect the rights of Indigenous people, as we did in the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Bill in 2000. At that time, the government gave us some guarantees that they were going to respond with legislative protection. They did in writing but, in terms of practical action, that is yet to be seen.

The amendments that we would want to put forward are in relation to Indigenous intellectual property in plants and seed varieties. Both parties have on many occasions translated in their Indigenous affairs policies a commitment to that, but it does come down to looking at the appropriate amendments being put forward to back that up—in particular, the protection of Indigenous knowledge that relates to location and characteristics of native plants and seeds, the medicinal and nutritional value of a wide range of native plants, the processes to extract and apply active ingredients, and sustainable land management practices that ensure ongoing access to native plants. Given the government's and the opposition's previous commitments, I fail to see how the Democrat amendments will not assist a lot of Indigenous communities to become key players and stakeholders as they should be in this issue.

I want to bring to the Senate's attention the issue of biopiracy in Australia. Recent research by the Rural Advancement Foundation International singles out Australia as the only state whose abuses are so pervasive as to render it a predator for commercialisation of plant varieties over which other countries claim ownership. RAFI's report on plant piracy examined 147 claims, and a staggering 115 of those originated in Australia. The report details some 35 instances where intellectual property claims in relation to Australian native species have been granted or are pending. The key thing there is that a direct relationship with the knowledge and intellectual property rights held by Indigenous people concerning their cultures and the increasing pressure from biopiracy is well founded, particularly when we consider how that has played out in a global context. More than half of the world's pharmaceutical drugs are based on indigenous knowledge. It has been estimated that the annual world market for medicines derives from medicinal plants discovered by indigenous peoples. In the US it is valued at $43 billion. So, in many respects, this debate is short-sighted because very few Indigenous communities are seeing any of the real financial benefits that flow from the commercialisation of their knowledge. It is something that the representative of the government may wish to take up and give some form of response.

There is also growing pressure to access and exploit indigenous knowledge and resources for commercial purposes, and that has serious implications for the future integrity of indigenous cultures—particularly the ability of those cultures to survive the onslaught of global commercial pressures. We now find ourselves in a totally unacceptable situation where Indigenous traditional knowledge claims in this country remain unprotected and, to a significant extent, unenforceable. There is not any legal recognition of the collective and individual nature of Indigenous intellectual property, the ongoing permanent nature of the laws and customs, the often secret nature of how that information is held and the right of Indigenous people, through their custodians, to share in some of the benefits, despite the findings of the High Court in native title where it talks about recognition of the interwoven relationship between Indigenous property rights and cultural law and practice.

The final thing that I want to say is that, whilst my colleague Senator Cherry will be dealing with most of the amendments, the amendments being put forward very much reflect the biodiversity draft regulations—the principles that we put forward during the debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act—which were to give effect to Australia's obligations under the CBD. The draft regulations deal with the rights of Indigenous people in relation to access to and use of genetic resources and also with being able to respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovation and practices of Indigenous communities and to encourage the equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of that knowledge. So there is an opportunity to take this further, but I think the legislation has been drafted in a very narrow form, and unfortunately the debate does not go far enough.

In closing, I want to emphasise that, whilst it is a first and meaningful step to include Indigenous representation on the advisory committee, it has to go much further than that. I note that the ALP are putting forward some amendments. We will certainly look at them. But it is difficult to say how we would support them, given that they do not go far enough in looking at Indigenous issues being properly represented on this occasion.

Progress reported.