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The pirates of the mountains

The pirates of the mountains

By Gaspar Grieco *

"In nature is our food and our medicine" is one of the main slogans that indigenous peoples use in their multiple claims for territory in Latin America. Ayahuasca, Peruvian maca, kava and yellow beans are some of the herbs that make up their diet and have been part of their traditional remedies for centuries. However, large multinational corporations today appropriate these resources without sharing the benefits.

The activity in which large laboratories take possession of the natural resources and knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world is known as biopiracy, and through the patent system that prevails in the Western world, these pirates have thick armor .

The renowned geneticist and president of the Latin American and Caribbean Bioethics Network (UNESCO), Víctor Penchaszadeh, believes that “the central countries, which control the world economy and the rules that they impose through the World Trade Organization, are the that drive their transnational corporations to appropriate the biological resources of peripheral countries, for their economic, political and military benefit ”.

The World Trade Organization, in its Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights related to Trade (Adpic), establishes in its article 27 that "patents may be obtained for all inventions, whether of products or procedures, in all fields technology, provided they are new, involve an inventive activity and are susceptible to industrial application (…) patents may be obtained and patent rights may be enjoyed without discrimination based on the place of the invention, the field of technology or the fact that the products are imported or produced in the country ”.

This type of legislation protects whoever patents a new product; The problem is that indigenous peoples do not establish their criteria in this way. “The patent system is an invention of northern countries to protect the rights of companies in northern countries. Community ownership of land and indigenous peoples' own traditional knowledge are not protected by patents. It is simply a system that does not work, ”says Claudio Iglesias Darriba, a lawyer specializing in collective trademarks and an official of the Ministry of Culture of the Nation.

To protect indigenous peoples from biopirates, Argentina has an extensive legal framework and is subscribed to numerous international pacts. One of the most celebrated is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, approved by the General Assembly in 2007, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), which strives for the protection of genetic resources and the use of these resources by indigenous communities.

"The legislation is quite complete, but we must not forget that we are struggling with a deeply rooted patent system with laws that work perfectly in northern countries and it would be illusory to think that we can replace them", warns Iglesias Darriba and differentiates those with " Effort and work patent a trademark ”of“ monopolies that are illicitly managed ”.

Following this logic, Penchaszadeh is cautious: “The Latin American and Caribbean Bioethics Network is guided in its actions by the guidelines of the Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights of UNESCO of 2005. In this way it opposes biopiracy. However, while its actions contribute to disseminating the need for states to continue advancing collective measures against biopiracy, it does not have the power or the means to limit it.


The pirate's treasure

Kava (Piper methysticum) was traditionally used by indigenous groups in the Pacific Islands as a detoxifier to relieve stress, but after several laboratories patented it in the 1990s, today it is sold in multiple forms in treatments for the hair loss by cosmetic companies. The indigenous people of the Pacific islands never shared in the profits it generates.

The cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum) is a small tree located in the Brazilian rainforest whose fruit has been food for indigenous inhabitants and animals. The Japanese company Asahi Foods patented it and registered the plant name as a trademark for various classes of the product in Japan, the European Union and the United States.

The list goes on and hundreds of cases can be named in the world, but biopiracy is not limited to the patenting of natural resources, since it also draws on the ancestral knowledge of native peoples for the treatment of those resources.

The anthropologist, doctor in Natural Sciences and principal investigator of the Conicet María Leila Pochettino explains that “a country can have a plant that can be used to cure cancer, another country has the technological development and they can make an agreement, they develop the medicine and the benefits are shared. The problem is that the original communities that experimented with plants over the millennia are not part of a country, or the countries where they settle do not recognize their rights.

Limiting biopiracy at the national level also creates complications, since many indigenous peoples extend their territory across the borders of countries. For example, the great Mapuche nation stretches between Chile and Argentina, while the Guarani settle between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

From the Florida peninsula to northern Argentina grows a plant that was historically used by indigenous groups for urinary infections, to fight parasites and to treat skin diseases, among other uses. The labs found out, but gave it another use. “About ten years ago, he had seven patents in the United States for immunostimulating drugs, which are used to treat cancer and AIDS. So who are the possessors of knowledge or of these plants? ”Pochettino wonders.

Today, scientists working in large laboratories no longer roam the mountains in search of unknown plants, but rather developments are based on the genetic manipulation of already known species, to find new uses and optimize resources.

Memories of dispossession

The search in nature to solve problems of health, food and shelter is remote. The famous expeditions of Marco Polo or Darwin in search of new plants and animals formed what is known as bioprospecting. However, it would be wrong to present bioprospecting as the antecedent of biopiracy since the latter implies legal protection for biopirates by industrialized countries.

One of the most emblematic examples of biopiracy is the case of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis). At the end of the 19th century, the Englishman Henry Wickham selected the best seeds from indigenous villages to smuggle them to England. The consequence was disastrous: in 1919, Brazil, which had enjoyed the rubber trade, supplied only one eighth of world consumption. Half a century later, Brazil was buying from abroad more than half the rubber it needed.

According to Iglesias Darriba, "in the United States, historically, it was the private sector that urged development while the State limited itself to consenting through the records that these practices could carry out without sufficient investigation of the background of the case." In Europe, on the other hand, "it is companies subsidized by the states themselves in the former colonies that were responsible for the dispossession of resources," he completes.

With regard to the international treaties and agreements signed in order to limit the scope of biopiracy, Pochettino believes that they are insufficient because they have not had the participation of indigenous peoples. "I believe that the central thing is that these communities have participation in each of the agreements that are signed from now on, that they are aware of what is expected and how the knowledge they possess and biodiversity will be used" , he reflects.

In this way, despite the fact that the extensive legal framework tries to limit biopiracy, the extractivist model continues in force. But the constant struggle of the indigenous peoples does not stop and that historical slogan in which they express that their food and medicine are in nature continues to permeate their banners and the color of their wiphalas.

* CTyS Agency

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