Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Cupuacu – The Amazon Fruit That Lost Its Name

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 12 2003 (IPS) - The move by a Japanese firm to register the name of the Amazon fruit cupuaçu as its own trademark has added fuel to the international campaign against what is known as biopiracy and to efforts to recuperate the name of this natural product for the public domain.

"Cupuaçu" is currently an exclusive trademark of the Asahi Foods Co., based in the southwest Japanese city of Kyoto, and of its subsidiary, Cupuacu International, the result of registering the name with the patent and trademark offices of Japan, United States and European Union.

Small exporting operations in the northwest Brazilian state of Acre were surprised by this fact last November when they tried to sell jelly and sweets made from the fruit to distributors in Germany.

Importers in Germany told them they had to remove the word "cupuaçu" from the product labels because the use of the trademarked name could cost them a fine of more than 10,000 dollars, explained Marcos Rocha, agronomist for PESACRE, an agro-forest research and extension programme in Acre.

The non-governmental organisation Acre Amazonlink, founded in 2001 and headed by Austrian Michael Schmidlehner, has publicised – via the Internet – the reality of the Amazon peoples and the products that represent their livelihoods.

Now Acre Amazonlink has denounced the trademarking of the cupuaçu name and is mobilising others in an effort to annul the Asahi Foods registration.

That effort has been followed by the Campaign Against Biopiracy, begun in late February, through coordination of some NGOs and groups of local producers under the Amazon Working Group (GTA), a network of 513 associations of forest product gatherers, fisherfolk, small farmers and environmental activists of the Brazilian Amazon.

While Amazonlink acknowledges that there is no official definition of biopiracy, its website mentions one used by the ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration): "the appropriation of the knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions seeking exclusive monopoly controlà"

The campaign to freeze patents on natural products has snowballed. Shortly thereafter, Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) and Germany’s Regenwald Institute joined the endeavour.

One of the arguments they wield in their fight against the trademarking of cupuaçu is that Japanese laws do not allow the names of raw materials or commodities to be registered.

The patent office of Japan may not have approved the Asahi Foods trademark application "if it had known it was the name of a fruit," Schmidlehner told IPS.

In response to a letter from Amazonlink, Asahi Foods director Nagasawa Makoto said that the trademark was not an attempt to monopolise trade in products related to the fruit, but rather to protect the company, which is relatively small but has offices in several countries.

But the Brazil-based organisation did not receive a reply to an open letter sent to Asahi Foods in which it urges the company to renounce the trademark and to withdraw other patent applications to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable development and "to restore the company’s reputation."

"We haven’t been able to communicate with the company since January," said Schmidlehner.

In a race against time, Amazonlink, GTA, the Association of Alternative Producers and the Brazilian Institute of International Trade Law were able to file a request to cancel the registration of the name in the Japanese office on Mar. 20, the deadline for accepting objections.

The process could take nine to 18 months, though the Amazonlink director believes they will win an annulment of the trademark due to the general principal that prohibits using the name of a natural product.

Neither Asahi Foods nor Cupuaçu International responded to IPS requests for interviews.

Legal battles are beginning on other fronts. The same company applied for patents – not yet granted – for cupuaçu oil extraction processes in Japan, EU and with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

If the patents come through, Asahi Foods could establish a monopoly of rights over a chocolate-like product made from cupuaçu seeds. The process for making cupuaçu chocolate has been widely used in Brazil for more than a decade.

The Britain-based company Body Shop International is also seeking to patent derivatives of the Amazonian fruit to be used in cosmetic products.

In these cases, the idea is to block the patents through "informal objections". If those do not work, more complex actions would be necessary, and those require technical analysis, explained Schmidlehner.

But the campaign against biopiracy is not limited to the legal sphere, nor to just the cupuaçu.

There are many products and process that international companies are seeking to patent or trademark, "violating the rights of indigenous and other traditional populations" of the Amazon region, because their knowledge about the uses of local biodiversity is not legally recognised, GTA national adviser José Arnaldo de Oliveira told IPS.

The campaign’s objective is the adoption of a Brazilian law that "would defend biodiversity and the rights of the peoples of the forest," to confront the recent interest of the rest of the world in the great wealth of the Amazon, Oliveira said.

A similar safeguard is also being sought at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The patent war has had other targets in Brazil. The andiroba and copaíba, trees that produce medicinal, fuel and cosmetic oils; the biribiri, a plant whose seed contains substances used by indigenous peoples as birth control; and the ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic substance taken in tea and used in indigenous religious rites.

The repercussions of the cupuaçu case have encouraged others to take up the battle against biopiracy in their countries. The issue will be taken up at the next ministerial meeting of the WTO, slated for September in Mexico.

The Brazilian Congress will hold a special session to discuss biopiracy and its impacts on the Amazon region, said Schmidlehner.

As part of the anti-biopiracy campaign, organisers are encouraging producers of cupuaçu seeds to boycott exports to Japan, where they are used to make cocoa-free chocolate.

The cupuaçu can weigh more than a kilogram and its abundant pulp is used in making sweets, jelly, ice cream and other products.

The harvest of cupuaçu in Brazil, mostly by associations of small farmers, is expected to produce 543 tons of seeds this year, according to estimates by a governmental agricultural research firm.

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