Issue of December 1, 2019
     
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‘Piracy’ of Cordillera heirloom rice guarded
by Rimaliza A. Opiña

The government agency in-charge of the agriculture industry in the country is taking measures to protect heritage products from being stolen or smuggled out of the Philippines, known as “biopiracy.”

For the Cordillera region, the Department of Agriculture is embarking on registering 420 varieties of heirloom rice found only in the upland farms in the region.

DA-Cordillera Executive Director Cameron Odsey said only around 80 varieties of Cordillera heirloom rice underwent DNA analysis at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). However, these has yet to be registered under a process called “geographic indication,” (GI) a distinctive sign used to identify a product whose quality, reputation or other such characteristics relate to its geographical origin.

The project to register and conduct DNA analysis of heirloom rice varieties started in 2014, but completion of the process has been slow because of meager budget allotted for it in the entire Philippine Rice Program.

“These varieties can be found only in the Cordillera. It has found a niche especially in the international market and is in fact, being promoted as a health food. We fear that if these are not registered, baka nakawin at itanim sa ibang bansa na may same environment as the Cordillera then they will claim the product as their own,” Odsey said.

Odsey said DA intends to protect heirloom rice from biopiracy mainly because of its cultural and historical ties to indigenous peoples.

Biopiracy is the commercial exploitation of biological or genetic material, as medicinal plant extracts, usually without compensating the indigenous peoples or countries from which the material or relevant knowledge is obtained.

“It (heirloom rice) has sustained our ancestors for centuries. Planting rice is part of their culture, of their history,” Odsey said.

Odsey said DA is presently working with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples so the agency can obtain samples of these grains for DNA analysis.

After these are tested, characterized (as to variety), and registered, the IRRI will keep a sample of the grains in a vault where access and propagation will be limited only to members of the tribe recognized to “own” the rice variety. 

Odsey said if these varieties are registered, indigenous peoples are guaranteed of fair compensation and their lineage is properly recognized.

A product with GI is also an indication that it has a distinct quality attributable from where the product originates, Odsey added.

Biopiracy has long been a problem in the Philippines. In fact, some of endemic plant species in the Philippines such as ampalaya known to have anti-diabetes properties and the Philippine yew tree, which can be found only in Mt. Pulag in Kabayan, Benguet and is said to have anti-cancer properties, have both been patented in the U.S.A.

To prevent the illegal use of biological and genetic resources in the Philippines, laws and issuances have been passed penalizing their unauthorized use such as the passage of the Philippine Wildlife Conservation Act and Executive Order 247, signed by then President Fidel Ramos, which contains the guidelines on the use of biological and genetic resources, their product and derivatives, for scientific and commercial purposes.


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