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The Bittersweet Taste of Stevia

Jan 17

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17/01/2018 10:10  RssIcon

Carla Hoinkes, from the Swiss campaign group Public Eye, tells us about the campaign to protect Guarani rights in the growing stevia market

 

‘Natural’, low in calories, neither causing decay nor diabetes: stevia sounds like a perfect healthy substitute for sugar. The beverage and confectionery industry is enthusiastically developing a whole range of products sweetened with steviol glycosides. Yet the commercialisation of stevia-derived sweeteners violates the right of indigenous peoples to a fair and equitable share of the benefits arising from the utilisation of their knowledge.

The market for stevia-based sweeteners is booming: according to recent estimates, global sales may reach more than US $1 billion in 2023, compared to US $447 million in 2016.

 

Image: Public Eye

 

However, not all products sweetened with steviol glycosides turn out to be a success: Coca Cola Life was recently withdrawn from several markets, including Great Britain and Australia. Still containing considerable amounts of sugar, the product apparently neither convinced with its green and healthy image, nor with its taste.

The industry is working hard on stevia’s bitter after-taste. Yet, as NGOs have reported, the most bitter pill is swallowed by Guarani indigenous peoples.


An “act of cruel piracy”

The Guarani Pai Tavytera and Kaiowa living across the Paraguay and Brazilian border are the holders of the traditional knowledge related to stevia; they discovered stevia’s sweetening powers and have been using the plant for centuries. Their knowledge is the basis for all commercialisation of stevia-derived sweeteners. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its Nagoya Protocol require that the benefits arising from the use of traditional knowledge be shared in a fair and equitable manner with the indigenous peoples providing such knowledge. But while companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are making huge profits, the Guaraní are being left empty-handed. As Guarani leader Luis Arce puts it, “the ongoing commercial use of stevia is an act of cruel piracy”. 


Discrepancies in the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol

The Guarani will not be able to enforce their rights arising under the CBD in the European Union, Switzerland or the US. The United States has not even ratified the Convention. And in the EU and Switzerland the problem comes from the way the CBD and its Nagoya Protocol have been implemented: the benefit-sharing obligation only applies for traditional knowledge accessed after 2014.

 

Image: Stevia

 

In the case of stevia, the traditional knowledge was accessed long ago. But it is only now that products are coming to the market. In contrast, the law of Brazil – and of most developing countries – considers the current use of stevia and traditional knowledge as falling under the scope of benefit-sharing obligations.


The Guarani defend their rights

The Guarani are determined to defend their rights. More than a hundred representatives of Guarani communities held a meeting in Paraguay in 2016 to demand a fair share of the benefits arising from the use of “their” stevia.

They denounce “the multinationals that make profits based on their knowledge and their biodiversity”, and demand that the companies in question join them at the negotiating table. The Guarani are now developing a community protocol to define the conditions governing access to their knowledge as well as their demands in terms of benefit sharing. 


Positive signs from industry

Are companies prepared to negotiate a benefit-sharing agreement? In order to find out, Public Eye contacted the largest producers and users of stevia-derived sweeteners. Several companies simply did not respond or refused to discuss benefit sharing in the context of stevia.

But others such as Basel-based Evolva and Nestlé declared that they would be prepared to negotiate an agreement with the Guarani. Even Coca Cola, which had long ignored the issue, agreed to a first informal exchange after 280,000 people signed a petition asking the company to share benefits with the Guarani. 

 

A benefit sharing success story?

Although the journey will be still long, there is now hope that a first group of companies will come to agreement with the Guarani. Public Eye and its partners are working on it. Hopefully, negotiations will start in early 2019.

The economic and political situation of the Guarani is precarious: they suffer from land expropriations, extreme poverty, persecution, and high rates of murder and suicide. Through benefit sharing, companies could help improve their livelihoods. And stevia could, once and for all, lose its bitter after-taste. 

 

 

Read the full report: The Bittersweet Taste Of Stevia >

 



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