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Samoa’s Access and Benefit Sharing Success Story: Local Communities Benefit from Genetic Resources and Associated Traditional Knowledge


Since 1989, the community of Falealupo, Government of Samoa and foreign parties have signed three Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) agreements for the purposes of Research & Development (R&D) and bio-prospecting. The agreements were put in place for the use of traditional knowledge from local healers and the local plant ‘mamala’ for HIV AIDS research.

This best practice highlights how implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD’s) third objective, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets (ABTs), and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the CBD, can result in monetary and non-monetary benefits to local communities. It highlights the benefits of recognizing and respecting local community’s rights to its biological resources and associated traditional knowledge, which range from poverty reduction, to biodiversity conservation, to social development.

This best practice has been repurposed from Samoa’s Fifth National Report to CBD (5NR).

Problem, challenge or context: 

Dramatic advances in science and technology, and shifts in business environments and models, have increased the demand for genetic resources and the ways in which they are used. Despite international legal frameworks such as the CBD, Nagoya Protocol, and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, there is still lack of legal certainty, clear information and formal procedures, for a fair relationship between providers and users of genetic resources.

This case study highlights the Samoa’s ABS success story. We also explore, the concept of prior informed consent (PIC), key elements of the mutually agreed terms (MAT), and a list of monetary and non-monetary community benefits arising from the use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.

Specific elements of components: 

In the late 1980s, Dr. Paul Alan Cox from the Institute for Ethnomedicine approached the Falealupo community to conduct ethnobotanical studies. He wanted to study the traditional practices of Falealupo village healers, and to run laboratory tests on the medicinal plants used by these healers. Dr. Cox identified the anti-viral phorbol prostratin, from the tree “Mamala” (Homolanthus nutans) in the Falealupo rainforest. Falealupo’s traditional healers use the plant to treat yellow fever, intestinal complaints and acute viral infections. In 1986, Dr. Cox, in collaboration with the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), and Aids Research Alliance (ARA) identified that prostratin may be a potential anti-retroviral that works against or targets against retroviruses, especially HIV AIDS.

In 1988, the Samoan Government required the Falealupo community to build a primary school for the community. To meet the expenses of the school construction, the community took a loan from a bank, which in turn gave away logging rights of Falealupo rainforests to a logging company. To protect the Falealupo rainforests from logging and for continued ethnobotanical research access, Dr. Cox negotiated Samoa’s first ABS agreement with the Falealupo local community – The Falealupo Covenant (1989). Since then, the Government of Samoa has entered into two additional ABS agreements: (1) ARA - Government of Samoa (2001); and (2) University of California, Berkeley - Government of Samoa (2004). All three ABS agreements revolve around access to and use of the local plant “Mamala” (Homolanthus nutans) for prostratin extraction for HIV AIDS research.

Prior to 1986, researchers in New Zealand also identified prostratin. However, it was first screened for anti-viral qualities by Dr. Cox and subsequently patented. The Homolanthus nutans tree is also found across the South Pacific from New Caledonia to French Polynesia. Therefore, regional cooperation and transboundary benefit-sharing of common heritage biological resources could be important and beneficial to protecting these resources.

The action taken: 

This section provides an overview of the ABS process undertaken by third parties to access Falealupo Community’s genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. We also review the national targets set under Samoa’s NBSAP 2015-2020 for boarder implementation of ABS principles in the Country.

  1. Verbal Prior Informed Consent (prior to CBD): Before any ethnobotanical studies, Dr. Paul Cox obtained a verbal PIC from the Falealupo village chiefs. Dr. Cox explained the purpose of his research and sought permission to study and access Falealupo community’s genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. He also described the chances of possible commercial gains from a discovery.
  2. The First ABS Agreement – The Falealupo Covenant (1989): The Falealupo Covenant was reputedly signed by every chief in Falealupo in a kava ceremony attended by the whole village. The main terms of the Falealupo Covenant included:
  • Monetary payments to the community for the construction of a community school;
  • Acknowledgement of the perpetual sovereignty of the Falealupo community over its rainforest;
  • Commitment by the community to preserve the rainforest for 50 years, including limitations on hunting and traditional uses;
  • Access to the Falealupo rainforest by Dr. Cox and his associates, for scientific research in perpetuity, as long as they do not damage the rainforest; and
  • Sharing 33 per cent of the profits with the community, from the commercial success of any drug discovery.
  1. The ABS Agreements between the Samoan Government, the AIDS Research Alliance, and University of California Berkeley: The two ABS agreements laid out the terms of profit sharing from the on-going research of prostrastin, intellectual property rights, and any future commercial success that may arise from marketing a drug. The agreements also described the division of royalties among the government of Samoa, Falealupo village, lineal descendants of the traditional healers who helped identify the tree Mamala, and other relevant parties.
  2. Samoa’s NBSAP: Samoa’s NBSAP 2015-2020 builds on its original NBSAP (2001). The national targets laid out in the latest NBSAP, reflect a strong emphasis and priority towards better implementation of ABS of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. These include:
  • Aligned to ABT 1 (biodiversity awareness), Samoa’s National Target 1 promotes biodiversity awareness among the people of Samoa by 2020. Action 1.4 promotes public awareness and understanding of ABS, and protection of Traditional Biological Knowledge.
  • Aligned to ABT 16 (ABS), Samoa’s National Target 16 seeks to ratify and accede the Nagoya Protocol. It also calls for the enactment and implementation of corresponding national legislation. Other actions to achieve this target include the development and implementation of an action plan addressing national priorities under the Nagoya Protocol, and the development of a centralized ABS Clearing House Mechanism.
  • Aligned with ABT 18 (traditional knowledge), Samoa’s National Target 18 seeks to protect the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of Samoa’s local communities that are relevant to the conservation, sustainable and customary use of biological and non-biological resources. Actions include: development of national ABS legislation and policy at the national and local level; an assessment of traditional knowledge practices related to native biological resources; and to determine the status of collaboration with the foreign research institutions, such as ARA, for samples of mamala collected from Samoa in 2001 for HIV AIDS research (Action 18.5).
Key lessons learned: 
  1. ABS is a slow process: Through regular progress updates, the risks involved and long timelines for pharmaceutical R&D, should be clearly communicated to the beneficiaries of ABS agreements.
  2. Transboundary and Regional ABS: If a biological resource or associated traditional knowledge is shared across a region, then in accordance with Article 11 of the Nagoya Protocol, Parties, with the involvement of indigenous and local communities concerned, should set the terms and extent of cooperation and transboundary benefit sharing, either through regional agreements or through further negotiations at the Intergovernmental Committees of the Nagoya Protocol (ICNP).
  3. Use of Synthetic Analogs: Synthetic analogs (synthetically created compounds that differs from the natural compound) probably do not fall under the Nagoya Protocol definition of ‘utilization of genetic resources’. Nevertheless, governments can specify in ABS agreements, that researchers utilizing synthetic analogs, should share benefits arising from such subsequent applications with local communities (Article 5.1 of the Nagoya Protocol on ‘subsequent applications’).
  4. Externally Driven ABS Process: Historically, ABS implementation in Samoa has been externally driven, where third party users have approached the government and expressed interest. To address this gap, the latest Samoan NBSAP holds ABS as a key national priority.
Impacts and outcomes: 

There is a delay in activity between the signing of the ABS agreements and the possible results from scientific research. Despite this delay, the Falealupo village has benefited considerably, financially and in other ways, from the three ABS Agreements.

Monetary benefits include:

  • USD 85,000 paid for the Falealupo community school in return for agreed access for R&D (Falealupo Covenant);
  • Over USD 100,000 paid for construction and maintenance of a rainforest walkway. Additional revenue ($342-428 USD in high season) is generated from the rainforest walkway ticket sales;
  • Charitable donations of approximately USD 300,00 to the community (from Seacology and Dr. Cox in his personal capacity); and
  • Up to USD 70,000 in milestone payments under ARA-Government of Samoa Agreement.

Non-monetary benefits include:

  • Conservation of the rainforest area in Falealupo;
  • Community benefits from construction and maintenance of schools and health care clinics;
  • Social recognition for the healers who have provided the knowledge about “mamala”;
  • Samoa ratified the Nagoya Protocol in 2014.
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