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Times 11 Sep 07
New spirit of resistance against biopiracy
Indigenous peoples have served notice that they will not be subjugated again
By Harish Mehta
THERE seems to be a new spirit of resistance among indigenous peoples, who with the help of academics and activists, are doing battle against biopiracy.
For instance, the (native American) Wapishana people of Guyana are fighting to protect from biopirates a nut called tipir, which stops haemorrhages and infections. The Wapishanas have challenged British chemist Conrad Gorinsky, who registered the property of the tipir plant as his findings, in European and United States patent offices.
Before applying for the patent, Mr Gorinsky lived with the Wapishanas, and studied their ways of using the plant. Peruvian natives are appalled that US firms have claimed the genetic material of maca, a well known sex-enhancing root used in herbal remedy and known even at the time of the Inca empire.
This is not to suggest that the pace of biopiracy has slowed or that the war is about to be won.
Thousands of patents on African plants have been filed. To name just a few: brazzeine, a protein 500 times sweeter than sugar from a plant in Gabon; teff, a grain used in Ethiopia's flat 'injera' bread; thaumatin, a natural sweetener from a plant in West Africa; the African soap berry and the Kunde Zulu cowpea.
In fact, the US has granted many patents on the maca plant between 2000 and 2002 and one of the companies that has filed patents claims that maca increases testosterone levels.
Lawyer Isabel Lapena argues that the countries that registered the plant did not discover or invent anything.
'They merely took advantage of indigenous, campesino knowledge of the plant, which is known as 'natural viagara'.'
In response Peru has set up a National Commission for the Protection of Biodiversity. Several US companies, universities and researchers, including the Seattle-based ZymoGenetics Inc, have filed for patents for a toxin found in the skin of the Monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor).
The secretion has traditionally been used by indigenous communities in the Amazon jungle in shamanic hunting rituals. Pharmaceutical companies and researchers found that the secretion contains new peptides that have analgesic properties and are capable of combating ischemia, a condition in which the blood flow (and thus oxygen) is restricted to a part of the body.
In the past, India was one of the few countries that was prepared to initiate action in Western courts for justice against claims on the genetic material of the neem tree, which had been patented by Western firms.
Now Africans are attempting to reclaim their traditional knowledge, including the sweetener brazzeine.
The Indian academic Vandana Shiva has put biopiracy in its historical perspective in her book entitled Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (South End Press, 1996, 148 pp).
Dr Shiva has written that in April 1492, Queen Isabel of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon granted the explorer Christopher Columbus the privileges of 'discovery and conquest'.
The following year, Pope Alexander VI promulgated his Bull of Donation, under which he granted to the European monarchs all islands and mainlands 'discovered and to be discovered' to the west and south of the Azores towards India, and not already claimed by any Christian king.
Dr Shiva argues that by this method, charters and patents turned acts of piracy into divine will. 'The peoples and nations that were colonised did not belong to the pope who 'donated' them, yet this canonical jurisprudence made the Christian monarchs of Europe rulers of all nations, 'wherever they might be found and whatever creed they might embrace'. 'The principle of 'effective occupation' by Christian princes, the 'vacancy' of the targeted lands, and the 'duty' to incorporate the 'savages', were components of charters and patents.'
She further posits that the Papal Bull, the Columbus charter, and patents granted by European monarchs laid the legal foundations for the colonisation and often extermination of non-European peoples, especially in the Americas and in Australia.
The Native American population declined from 72 million in 1492 to less than four million a few centuries later through violence and the introduction of diseases.
Some 500 years after Columbus, Dr Shiva argues, a secular version of the same project of colonisation continues through patents and intellectual property rights (IPRs).
The principle of effective occupation by Christian princes has been replaced by effective occupation by the transnational corporations supported by modern-day rulers.
Further, she says that 'the 'vacancy' of targeted lands has been replaced by the vacancy of targeted life forms and species manipulated by the new biotechnologies.
The duty to incorporate savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate local and national economies into the global marketplace, and to incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of commercialised Western science and technology.
The creation of property through the piracy of other's wealth remains the same as 500 years ago'. Thus, the land titles issued by the pope through European kings and queens were the first patents.
Today, Western companies are threatening Asian heritage such as the neem, a tree native to India that has been used for centuries as biopesticide and medicine, and is being stolen in the guise of IPRs.
Since 1985, over a dozen United States patents have been taken out by US and Japanese firms on formulas for neem-based solutions and emulsions - and even for a neem-based toothpaste, a common product found all over India.
In 2002, the Second South-South Biopiracy Summit in Johannesburg concluded that Africa stands to lose huge benefits from its biodiversity due to the lack of legal protection against biopiracy.
Multinationals make huge profits from African biodiversity but do not share these with the communities who discovered, kept and transmitted the knowledge, activists argue.
'They are stealing the loaf and sharing the crumbs,' said Tewolde Berhan Egziabher, a leading expert at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia.
As awareness of biopiracy practised by Western firms and individuals has spread among the villages, campesinos and barrios in formerly colonised countries, the indigenous people have served notice that they will not allow themselves and their property to be subjugated again.
Toronto-based Harish Mehta contributed this article to BT. He writes on environmental and intellectual property rights issues
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