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Substances naturelles en Polynésie française

Jean Guezennec
Christian Moretti
Jean-Christophe Simon

Part one. English Version


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1Over the past fifteen years, as biotechnology has blossomed, industry and the general public have expressed growing interest in the use of natural substances of all kinds – plant or animal, terrestrial or marine – either as products in themselves or as a source of new molecules. Most uses of such substances, and certainly those that receive most media attention, are in dietary supplements, cosmetics and perfumes. Great hopes are aroused as regards medicinal applications, with varying degrees of justification. Among the many other sectors involved in what is now called “green chemistry” are plant protection products, depollutants and new materials.

2An essential reference in this connection, and a driving force in the process, is the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), adopted at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and which came into force on 29 December 1993. The CBD is designed to promote:

  • conservation of biodiversity,

  • sustainable use of the components of biodiversity,

  • fair and equitable sharing of the benefits obtained from the use of genetic resources.

3Considering the market’s appetite for natural resources, these are major challenges. The CBD made it axiomatic that one of the most effective ways to protect biodiversity would be to make biodiversity economically profitable while keeping to the principles the CBD is to draw up, with countries introducing the necessary legal instruments to apply them.

4Meanwhile, French Polynesia’s political and administrative status was changing. An institutional law passed in 1996 established a new form of autonomy for the islands, under which “the authorities of French Polynesia are competent in all matters not vested in the State.” An institutional law passed in 2004 made French Polynesia an “Overseas Country of free governance” and extended the scope of the Polynesian authorities’ competence. It is in this new institutional framework that the question of making economic use of natural substances has been discussed.

5As a result of these discussions, the Research Commission of the French Polynesian government commissioned the IRD to conduct an expert group review to identify strategic policy guidelines on the utilisation of natural substances in French Polynesia. This was approached by means of questions, as outlined below.


6■ As formulated in the specifications (see Annex 3), the Polynesian authorities were motivated by two observations:

    • 1 Monoi: cosmetic product used as ointment or liniment. “Monoi de Tahiti is produced by macerating Ti (...)
    • 2 Noni: fruit of the noni plant (Morinda citrifolia), gathered all year round and mainly processed as (...)

    French Polynesia has some major assets for making economic use of natural substances. Many of its resources are endemic and taxonomically exceptional; there is demand from fast-growing markets; Polynesia enjoys a positive image; the business environment is favourable, with local experience in exploiting a number of products, from pearls to monoi1 and noni juice2, and a substantial scientific research infrastructure.

  • However, this potential has not so far been fully exploited or even fully inventoried. As the specifications emphasise, “The substances already utilised could be exploited more intensively (…). In the near future, some natural substances could generate new markets, boosting French Polynesia’s development (…)”.

7There is therefore vast scope for scientific research and economic planning.

  • The divergence between the estimated potential and the extent to which it is currently exploited raises hopes, stimulated (possibly over-stimulated) by success stories such as noni juice (see below). Are the expectations on a par with the real extent of Polynesia’s store of economically useful natural substances? How many species are potentially useful? What quantities of these are available? What are the conditions for access, use and biodiversity protection? What would be the costs and limitations? What degree of involvement by the public authorities would be required?

  • Assess the prospects for value-added use of natural substances as exactly as possible is an essential step towards defining French Polynesian policy in this connection. Two aspects of the question need to be scientifically elucidated: the potential must be assessed, and the conditions for exploiting that potential must be defined.

Scope and obligations of the expert group review

8Once the Polynesian sponsor and the IRD’s Consulting and Industrial Relations Department had together fine-tuned the questions, two objectives were set for the expert group review:

Conduct a scientific and economic assessment covering:

  • the current state of knowledge of the resource: “as much information as possible about natural substances in French Polynesia must be put together”;

  • how the resource is economically exploited at present: a study providing “thorough, up-to-date knowledge of this sector in French Polynesia and the socio-economic background”.

Identify prospects:

9 Prospects for improving knowledge of the resource, proposals for new research avenues to identify economically useful natural substances. This is covered by the following points in the project specifications:

  • What is the potential usefulness of French Polynesia’s biodiversity, compared to neighbouring intertropical countries?

  • Based on the analysis of French Polynesian biodiversity, what are the exploited or exploitable natural substances in the Territory? What economic impact can be expected for French Polynesia? Over what period of time?

10 Prospects for defining an overall strategy for economic use of the resource,

  • starting from an analysis of market trends and official regulations;

  • starting from the guidelines suggested for R&D in each utilisation sector.

11 To conclude, the review will formulate recommendations based on the prospects identified. The recommendations will particularly concern:

  • market protection mechanisms;

  • general principles for structuring product chains;

  • links and partnerships to be developed, between research and industry, between the public and private sectors.

Characteristics of the expert group review

12 The topic of the review and the questions asked of it thus require a scientific approach firmly focused on economic utilisation. To take this approach as far as possible, it was decided that the review’s final product, which usually consists of a set of analytical chapters and a synopsis, should this time include two additional documents:

  • a set of data sheets on natural substances from land plants. The data sheets present potentially useful substances and the various aspects of their current or potential economic use. Each substance is ranked according to priority, and an expert opinion is given to justify the ranking.

  • a separate report resulting from a specific mission to assess the local economic situation. This report considers the economic and technical potential that could be mobilised to develop new economic activities utilising natural substances in French Polynesia. This report will be submitted to the sponsor only, who will decide whether or not to disseminate it.

13■ To give an accurate idea of the scope of this review we must define the resource in question. The economic value lies not in genetic resources per se, i.e. the “hereditary biological material of useful plants, genes, chromosomes etc.”, but in products and services derived from biodiversity.

14In recent years this has meant that the concept of “genetic resources” has been extended to include products derived from them, particularly chemical compounds, that are not themselves capable of self-reproduction. This extension of the concept is evident in the CBD and the international agreements that followed: the terms genetic resources and biological resources, including natural substances taken from living organisms, are used interchangeably.

15This leads to some confusion between chemical compounds extracted from living organisms, and the living material itself. This confusion has consequences for the debate over the patentability of living things: from debate over the patentability of the gene (the fundamental matter of life), the discourse has shifted to patents concerning molecules of natural origin. Although these are no more “living” than a cup of tea, they can very well be defined as “plant extracts containing chemical substances”, or “natural substances”.

16■ The scope of the expert group report is defined by the Polynesian authorities’ questions, which are very wide-ranging. These questions were mostly formulated before the review began. The main issue – how to design an overall policy for the commercial use of natural substances – includes aspects that are beyond the scope of the usual expert group review or call for spheres of competence not covered by the panel members, whose number is necessarily limited. Some aspects required other types of approach altogether, such as consultancy work and market studies. The experts were therefore anxious to clearly define the scope of its work; this was done at the initial workshop with the sponsor and monitoring committee in May 2003, and in the interim report submitted for the second video conference with the monitoring committee in February 2004. Other constraints such as the state of the available literature and the short duration of the economic study mission also forced the experts to limit the scope of their investigations and conclusions.

  • 3 See annex to paper by Moretti & Florence on Les ressources végétales polynésiennes.

17However, the fragmentary and incomplete nature of the available data on the resource had one positive result: the work of identifying substances of interest for the expert group review went far beyond a state-of-the-art review. In many respects these findings constitute original scientific input. This is particularly true of the “List of useful plants of French Polynesia”3, which is a genuinely new tool. In fact the whole approach to selecting plant species is an original one.


1 Monoi: cosmetic product used as ointment or liniment. “Monoi de Tahiti is produced by macerating Tiare flower (Gardenia taitensis) in refined coconut oil extracted from coconuts gathered ripe, growing on coral soils within the geographical area of French Polynesia. The coconuts must come from the Cocos nucifera species and the Tiare flowers must come from Gardenia taitensis (Candolle flora) of Polynesian origin and be gathered in bud.” (decree No. 92-340).

2 Noni: fruit of the noni plant (Morinda citrifolia), gathered all year round and mainly processed as juice but also prepared in the form of capsules, powders, etc.

3 See annex to paper by Moretti & Florence on Les ressources végétales polynésiennes.

© IRD Éditions, 2006

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