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Biopiracy and indigenous peoples: chronicle of the looting of knowledge

Biopiracy and indigenous peoples: chronicle of the looting of knowledge

By Nikolas de Laserna

To speak of intellectual property and indigenous peoples is to speak of opposing worlds, it is to think of a conflict that is imposed from the highest spheres of power and that supposes an attack on the life and culture of some peoples that seem to count. The way in which the so-called developed world is having to tackle this issue, far from responding to criteria based on respect and solidarity, is favoring the power of international monopoly capital, undermining the right of indigenous peoples to live according to their own customs and facilitating the usurpation of their collective knowledge by exogenous economic powers that operate with total impunity.


Biopiracy is a very topical issue. They try to mutate his name; They call it prospecting, REDD programs, but basically nothing changes. The interests of large corporations continue to prevail in a world that rewards the powerful and undermines the interests of the most disadvantaged.

To speak of intellectual property and indigenous peoples is to speak of opposing worlds, it is to think of a conflict that is imposed from the highest spheres of power and that supposes an attack on the life and culture of some peoples that seem to count. The way in which the so-called developed world is having to tackle this issue, far from responding to criteria based on respect and solidarity, is favoring the power of international monopoly capital, undermining the right of indigenous peoples to live according to their own customs and facilitating the usurpation of their collective knowledge by exogenous economic powers that operate with total impunity.

We speak of Biopiracy, a term that defines “the use of intellectual property systems to legitimize the exclusive ownership and control of biological resources and biological products and processes that have been used for centuries in non-industrialized cultures” [1 ].

In some way, the problem that indigenous peoples face when claiming rights over their knowledge and culture is very similar to the one they face when they demand recognition of the right to the environment and its relationship, in both cases, with the territory they inhabit. It is the insolence of a legislation imposed from the Western world that claims for itself the exploitation of that wealth based on a particular conception of humanity and that from its state of power, ignores and despises those who propose an alternative life. Latin America has suffered for centuries from the greed of those who seek minerals, oil or wood and now, faced with the new “knowledge economy”, it is also suffering the invasion of a pharmaceutical industry that is hunting for new sources of knowledge, in search of unknown natural properties that the rich and extensive biodiversity of the region can provide.

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR): legislation sponsored by the WTO. Knowledge and its relationship with international trade

On January 1, 1995, the treaty that gave life to the World Trade Organization came into force. The agreement, dedicated to regulating the rules that govern international trade, devotes a large part of its articles to the management of an international intellectual property system. They are called TRIPS (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). This is the definitive impulse to the paradigm of trade liberalization as the hegemonic vector of the new international relations, including the distribution and use of knowledge through intellectual property rights. An agreement that obliges the parties to modify their laws in the sense of what was agreed upon.

The treaty is, for many authors, a direct consequence of the pressure exerted by multinationals dedicated to the pharmaceutical and computer software industries residing in the United States, Europe and Japan. We are dealing with the largest technology providers on the planet and despite having rigorous intellectual protection systems in industrialized countries, they considered the need to extend this protection to the rest of the world. It is representative that by 1995, patents in the United States already represented more than 50% of all its exports [2]. We live in times in which the power of knowledge linked to the aforementioned industries is a huge source of wealth. Large transnational corporations invest huge amounts of money in scientific research related to biotechnology. Genetics, biochemistry, food science, medicine, agriculture ... make up a powerful industrial conglomerate monopolized by a small number of multinationals that will require an intellectual protection system according to their needs. The TRIPS agreement will provide a satisfactory response to the demands of its promoters, while demonstrating the total condescension of governments that will not hesitate to impose legislation and doctrine throughout the world. I will summarize below some of the changes that the agreement introduces and that directly affect the subject we are dealing with:

- The obligation of all parties to respect the patents of all member countries and the right to patent in any member country and by any of its nationals is expressed. For the first time in the history of intellectual property, patents are effectively internationalized. Those most interested (those who patent the most) achieve the commitment of the parties to protect their patents in their respective countries.


- Longer duration of the patent. The agreement stipulates 20 years of rights granted to the patent holder. This supposes a substantial change in the diverse national legislations that did not go so far in this concession.

- In relation to patentable subject matter: Article 27 of the agreement opens the range of possibilities by imposing a reduction in the originality barrier. Thus, the option of patenting processes is favored and property rights are granted over forms of life, something that will mean a fundamental change in the majority of national laws that did not recognize this possibility until the entry into force of TRIPS. This is undoubtedly the most controversial point of the agreement while it is a resounding success in the aspirations of the biotechnology industry. Granting property rights over life forms has raised a dense debate of a marked ethical nature that raises serious doubts in this regard. This new conflict around the biotechnology industry maintains as its main criticism that despite the fact that scientists have learned to “remove” genes, they are not creating an organism but rather modifying it, affirming consequently that this alteration should not be grounds for a concession. patent. Biodiversity and its properties are thus put into a market of enormous magnitude that will not hesitate to hunt and capture new patents all over the world.

Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and their relationship with TRIPS

The Latin American region concentrates a high percentage of the planet's biodiversity. There are also numerous indigenous peoples that inhabit it and who, over the centuries, have been able to generate a whole system of traditional and collective knowledge. As the author Fernando Antonio de Carvalho Dantas affirms; “The land is for indigenous peoples a space for life and freedom. The space understood as a place of realization of culture. Human societies, in this case, indigenous societies, build their knowledge from their own cosmologies, collectively elaborated on the basis of social experiences, which shows worldviews not compatible with the Western individualist model ”[3]. This conception is at odds with a trade-based IPR system that only recognizes “formal” innovators such as scientists, horticulturists and technologists [4] and that is based on criteria such as industrial applicability for the granting of a patent. Indigenous peoples never required a similar system and now they are obliged to fight under the framework of a legal system built specifically for the West, which is also completely alien to their own idiosyncrasies. Against this background, biotechnology multinationals are not having any problem pirating knowledge [5] which, through small modifications, is ultimately privatized under IPR protection. The process is simple: multinationals seek information, free of charge, from the peoples who have accumulated it for centuries. This is information related to the uses of plants, their geographical locations, time and manner of harvest, preparation, formulas ... which will then be modified to declare the novelty of the product and patent it [6].

In addition to usurping the knowledge of these peoples, large corporations and their related institutional mechanisms are imposing a new conception of economic and social life based on the privatization of ideas and biodiversity, which directly attacks the roots of their culture.

The IPR issue is at the epicenter of a huge range of conflicts ranging from biopiracy, to the issue of generics, industrial agriculture or the exploitation of natural resources. Patents are already a fundamental element of markets and have become one of the most important exportable goods in developed economies. This is enshrined at the time when intellectual property is being formulated from institutions dedicated to trade. Legislation is already a necessity for those who negotiate with their innovations and, aware that today's trade is carried out at a global level, they will have to export their protection systems to the largest number of nations possible. In this way, developing countries are “forced” to create an iron patent system, convincing the world that it is the only way, for example, to protect their plants and traditional uses. The Free Trade Agreements (FTA) that the great powers sign with half the world always carry with them provisions regarding IPR. They are the so-called TRIPS-plus that delve into the provisions signed in TRIPS and undermine, even more if possible, the interests of the most disadvantaged.

Nikolas de Laserna - Observatory of Multinationals in Latin America (OMAL) - http://www.omal.info - May 24, 2011

Notes:

[1] Shiva, V. (2003). Protect or plunder? Intellectual property rights. Barcelona. Intermón Oxfam.

[2] Idem.

[3] Sánchez Rubio, D., Solórzano Alfaro, N. J., and Lucena Cid, I. V. (2004). New colonialism of capital. Intellectual property, biodiversity and peoples' rights. Icaria.

[4] Shiva, V. (2008). The new wars of globalization; seeds, water and life forms. Madrid. Popular Ed.

[5] According to a study carried out by the United Nations Development Program, the value of medicinal plants from the South used by the pharmaceutical industry in the North is estimated to be $ 32 billion a year. Another study estimates the value of undiscovered pharmaceuticals made from plants found in tropical forests at $ 147 billion. Data obtained from the Third World Economic website.

[6] Shiva, op. cit.


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