Henry Wickham, the Amazon river and rubber trees--the state of biodiversity and biopiracy today

Around Christmas time in 2012, this Kat published a post about the Global Seed Vault in Norway, whose avowed purpose was to preserve a semblance of biodiversity should there  be a major world-wide calamity to our food stocks. Then, and now, the issue of enhancing biodiversity remains a highly contentious issue. In companion pieces (here and here) that appeared in the 12 September issue of The Economist, “Growing pains: Storing wild seeds –and lives” and “A dying breed: Specimen-hunting has become less dangerous, but takes persistence”, we are reminded of the interweaving of private, national and international interests that have come together to make biodiversity such a complex issue. We start with the stark fact, as reported, that merely 30 (!) crops satisfy nearly all of the world’s nutritional needs. The risk that a serious, wide-spread disease might endanger a critical mass of our world food production has led to a search for wild-grown relatives of these food crops, the goal being to try and identify genetic traits that can then be brought back to develop new and ideally lead to more resistant crops. This means that botanists and the like who seek such potential wild varieties must do so in the plants’ natural habitats.

The challenge is how to go about this process of plant collection in light of the international arrangements that have been put into place. In particular, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by nearly 200 jurisdictions, has given recognition to plants as part of a country’s national heritage. It has also put into place measures to prevent “biopiracy”, which prevents one from gaining pecuniary advantage from such plants without reaching agreement to compensate the country in which the plants are found. Not surprisingly, following the recognition of national rights in the plants found within a given jurisdiction, the process of regulation and bargaining over the terms of removing plants has sometimes complicated efforts to enhance biodiversity. Access by botanists and the like to such plants is uneven, bureaucracy can impede, and over-strict interpretation of the Convention, such as in India, restricts the ability to share plants and seeds.

In light of our current framework, it is interesting to recall how the transfer of plants once took place. The story of Henry Wickham (1846-1928), an English explorer sometimes called the first modern” biopirate”, is instructive. Wickham is credited with bringing to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, 70,000 rubber seeds from a rubber plant (Hevea brasiliensis) found in the Amazon, in the Santarem region of Brazil. These seeds became the foundation for the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. Controversy abounds regarding exactly what Wickham did with respect to these rubber seeds, and how he collected and delivered them to Kew Gardens. There does not appear to have been any law in Brazil at the time that prevented seed gathering and exportation (although there does seem to be evidence that Wickham did not explicitly disclose the nature of his cargo).

As for Wickham himself, opinions differed, as reported on Bouncing-balls.com:
“One view was expressed by Henry Ridley, Director of the Botanic gardens in Singapore and the person who, more than any other, persuaded the country know known as Malaysia to develop rubber plantations: ‘I looked on him as a failed planter who was lucky in that for merely travelling home with a lot of seeds had received a knighthood and enough money to live comfortably in his old age…. He ordered natives to bring him in the seeds and to pack them in crates and put them on board ship. One cannot help feeling he was jolly well paid for a little job. He was no agriculturalist, he knew nothing about rubber and cared not for it…. As for his abilities in planting I should say he had none’.

Edward Lane, one of the very few people to have studied Wickham’s life in detail, wrote of him in 1953 as an ardent imperialist with little business acumen with an autocratic manner which made him difficult to get on with yet he was a staunch and loyal friend to those he really liked. Fordyce Jones, a close friend in Wickham’s later years called him: ‘a great man … whom to know was to love and whom all those in the rubber industry who have its interests at heart have affectionately called its ‘father’”.
Whatever the facts were, the Southeast Asia rubber tree industry developed as a result of the removal of the seeds from the Amazon and Wickham played some role in this removal.

Wickham’s story brings us back to the complexity involving biodiversity. It is reported that the removal of the seeds and the rise of plantations in Southeast Asia broke the dominant (monopolistic?) position enjoyed by Brazil. In principle, breaking down monopolies is a good thing for competition and presumably it aids the goal of biodiversity. Also, talking about national interests in the context of the 19th century Amazon region, as well as the imperialistic overtone to the industry in Southeast Asia, muddies the analytical waters. Still, it would seem that the international community was better off as a result, even if there were winners and losers at the national and regional levels. Today, the international community has taken the position that biopiracy of the Wickham kind is no longer tolerable, strengthening the bargaining position of countries fortunate to have plants of potential value within their borders. The aggregate benefit to biodiversity, at least in the short run, may be less certain.
Henry Wickham, the Amazon river and rubber trees--the state of biodiversity and biopiracy today Henry Wickham, the Amazon river and rubber trees--the state of biodiversity and biopiracy today Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, October 09, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. Glad to be out of the madhouseMonday 12 October 2015 at 23:08:00 GMT+1

    An earlier, more interesting, and altogether more likeable example of such a historical "biopirate" was the Frenchman Pierre Poivre, who arranged to have clove and nutmeg seedlings smuggled out of the domains of the Dutch East India Company, a corporation that took much stricter measures than the Nagoya Protocol to protect its biological resources, up to and including the occasional whole-island massacre.
    Incidentally, Poivre wrote extensively about his travels, and became an early proponent of economic liberalism, as well as an ardent abolitionist...

  2. I well remember hearing about Wickham's Brazilian rubber tree exploits in a BBC Schools broadcast when I was a Junior schoolboy in the 1950's. No doubt a different slant would be put on the story in today's PC climate.

  3. Let us not forget that most illustrious biopirate William Bligh !


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