For more than a century, French perfume makers have depended on the Amazon for ingredients for many of their products, but their "biopiracy" is less known than the products of their labs, says a Brazilian researcher.
William Gama, a researcher in the field of international cooperation in science and technology, has recently released a report denouncing the French practice.
Gama, co-author of a study on the theft of genetic resources in Brazil, said the "palo rosa" (rosewood), an indigenous Amazonian tree that contains essential ingredients for many perfumes, is a main target of illegal loggers and traders and its survival is at risk.
The "exporters" exact a fee ten times greater than the amount received by the locals who tap the trees, while French perfume manufacturers multiply the price more than 100 times, Gama says.
Gama, a member of the National Institute of Amazon Research, believes the palo alto deserves a campaign similar to one that targets trade of mahogany, a tree whose existence is also threatened by excessive logging. He suspects that "for some reason, non-governmental organizations are not interested" in fighting the perfume industry.
However, last year the French non-governmental organization Robin de Bois threatened to boycott Chanel No. 5, if the company that manufactures the most well-known perfume in the world refused to confirm that palo rosa was not used in its production process.
Chanel justifies its reluctance to divulge the ingredients of its perfume, citing the need to protect one of the most coveted formulas in the world. In fact, company spokesmen argue that the company has a deep interest in defending the environment and the raw materials it uses, since their extinction would be economically disastrous for Chanel.
While other perfumes are manufactured from oil extracted from the palo rosa, Robin de Bois chose to single out the high-profile Chanel No. 5 to highlight the damage which, it says, the perfume industry wreaks in tropical forests.
The chemical industry now produces an artificial substance similar to the natural essence found in the palo rosa. But this has not reduced the rate at which the tree is being destroyed, because any substitution would alter the original formula, a change unacceptable for traditional sophisticated perfumes, lamented Milton Lima, a botanical researcher on the Amazon.
The palo rosa, a tree that reaches an average of 66 feet in height, matures in 40 years and is ideal for the production of perfume oil, according to an expert with the Emilio Goeldi Museum of Belem, capital of Para region in north-central Brazil.
Scattered throughout forests, the tree is sought out by Amazonian villagers who extract the oil through a primitive distillation process. The oil is then illegally exported by way of as yet unknown routes, Lima explained.
The Amazon offers a great quantity of substances useful in perfume and cosmetic production, yet the industry takes advantage of this biological diversity in considering the region a source of immense riches to be appropriated for economic gains.
Biological prospecting is a rapidly expanding activity. Numerous expeditions have been sent into the region to find and export, legally or illegally, large quantities of plant and animal specimens, which constitutes genetic piracy, according to Gama.
Even insects have become targets of the biopirates. Gama estimates that 200,000 known species have been taken out of the Amazon for research abroad. Many are requested as loans from Brazilian research centers but never returned to their natural habitat. However, these losses are not monitored, the researcher added.
Ornamental fish are also smuggled in bulk. Gama mentioned the case of the "acar-disco," a species taken from the Rio Negro -- one of the Amazon's largest tributaries -- and then shipped to Asian countries where it is in high demand. Each acar-disco can fetch up to $120.
Interest in Amazonian species began to grow at the start of the 1970s. Today, there are many known cases of plants used by indigenous Brazilians as remedies for various illnesses and whose active ingredients were patented abroad. This resulted in the emergence of $1 million worth of businesses for those who had pirated the plants from their natural environment.
In the 1960s, there were around 10 North American biotechnological companies, while today there are an estimated 1,500. Four out of every 10 newly-discovered medicines, contain substances derived from tropical plants, according to experts in the field.
Faced with this reality, the Brazilian congress has been discussing since 1995 a legal project that would regulate access to the country's biological diversity and recognize the contributions of Native peoples, peasants, and forest populations to a body of knowledge that serves as the basis for the production of new medicines.
However, the National Indigenous Foundation, an aid organization for Brazil's native populations, plans to restrict the entry of researchers into its territories. The proposed restrictions, still under study, received a boost after a scandal involving the sale of the genes of the Caritiana and Suru Native communities on the Internet by a North American company, Coriel Cell Repositories.
Coriel, a non-governmental organization, collected blood samples from Native people in the northeastern part of the Brazilian Amazon.
Those responsible for extracting the samples claimed they were providing the Native population with medical assistance.