18. Indigenous People Challenge Private Ownership and Patenting of Life

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

GeneWatch, October 1999
Title: Indigenous Peoples’ Statement on the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and the WTO Agreement
Author: Kimberly Wilson

Third World Resurgence #110-111, Fall 1999
Title: A Call for Support for African Group Proposal on TRIPS Article 27.3(b) on Patenting of Life

Earth First!, March/April 2000
Looting Indigenous Medicine in Chiapas
Author: Rural Advancement Foundation International

Faculty Evaluator: Tom Lough, Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Ambrosia Crumley, Karen Parlette, Adam Sullens

“We, indigenous peoples from around the world, believe that nobody can own what exists in nature except nature herself. “ This is the first line from the indigenous people’s statement on intellectual property rights. There is a portion of the WTO agreement, called the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), that will allow multinational corporations to apply for patents on living creatures and life processes. Indigenous peoples from around the world, however, believe that private ownership of life forms is unnatural and inappropriate.

On July 25, 1999, a gathering of indigenous peoples signed a document that called for an amendment to the TRIPS agreement that would be put as a priority item on the agenda at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle. The document eloquently states that all life forms and the life-creating processes are sacred and should not be subject to proprietary ownership. Specifically targeted was article 27.3b of TRIPS, which will denigrate and undermine rights to culture and intellectual heritage; destroy plant, animal and genetic resources; and even discriminate against indigenous ways of thinking and behaving. Indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage collectively evolve through generations. This means that no single person can claim to have invented or discovered medicinal plants, seeds, or other living things.

The TRIPS agreement as it stands substantially weakens indigenous people’s access to and control over genetic and biological resources, and contributes to the deterioration of their quality of life. The people are very specific about what should be amended to article 27.3b. Amendments should clearly prohibit the patenting of plants and animals. They aim to ensure that a system is created that will protect knowledge, innovations, and practices in farming, agriculture, health, and medical care, and conserve the biodiversity of indigenous peoples and farmers. Agreements are needed to prevent the piracy of seeds, medicinal plants, and the knowledge about their use; and prevent the destruction and conversion of indigenous people’s land.

In Chiapas, Mexico, 11 indigenous people’s organizations, known as the Council of Indigenous Traditional Midwives and Healers Chiapas, are demanding that a $2.5 million, U.S. government-funded bioprospecting program suspend its search for indigenous medicine in Chiapas, Mexico. The project is cited as robbery of traditional indigenous knowledge and resources, for the sole purpose of producing pharmaceuticals that will not benefit the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for thousands of years. The companies involved include Glaxo-Wellcome, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Dow Elanco Agrosciences. The project claims that royalties will be sent back to the indigenous people, but the reality is that long-term benefits may never materialize, and many people reject both intellectual property and the process established for benefit sharing. The critical issue now is that the project is apparently proceeding not only without proper consultation with the affected communities but also against the express wishes of a very significant sector of the Chiapas community.

Update by Kimberly Wilson

The United States remains one of the only countries in the world that recognizes patents on life forms. It would be unthinkable in Thailand, for example, to allow a private company to claim ownership of medicinal plants, animal cells, or human genes. The U.S. patent office has thrown open the doors to the biotechnology industry, allowing entire species of plants, transgenic animals, and over 500,000 whole or partial genes to be patented. Under the U.S. system, basic biological resources are privatized-accessible only to those willing and able to pay royalty fees for access or research. Questions about new genetic technologies in agricultural and human research go beyond social and environmental concerns, raising fundamental issues of power and control. Who should be granted property rights over pieces of the natural world? Who should control common biological and genetic resources?

In the past year, the issues of life patenting received a considerable amount of media attention as scientists announced a draft map of the human genome. Some of the country’s top geneticists have formed ties with private companies and are now luring investors with promises of strong patent portfolios based on human genetic information. President Clinton and Tony Blair took up the issue when they met in March 2000. Their joint statement, which seemed to criticize gene patents, led to the plummeting of biotech stocks worldwide. Sensing the vulnerability of the industry, critics grew quieter and the mainstream press has largely overlooked the issue. Within the scientific community, questions about patents on life continue to be controversial. A few monthly science journals report regularly on the issue.

The circle of knowledge about life patenting needs to widen. It is not necessary to be a geneticist or a lawyer to understand the basics of patent law, or to see the natural world becoming commodified via the patent system. Rather than insisting that other countries change their patent laws to accommodate U.S. life patents, citizens can insist that the US change its laws to harmonize with the rest of the world. There are a handful of organizations that offer educational materials and activist resources for those interested in learning more.

Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG): http://www.gene-watch.org
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI): http://www.rafi.org
Greenpeace International and Greenpeace Germany: http://www.greenpeace.org
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP): http://www.iatp.org

Publications for further reading:
Martin Teitel & Hope Shand, “The Ownership of Life: When Patents and Values Clash,” 1998.
Kristin Dawkins, “Gene Wars: The Politics of Biotechnology,” October 1997.
Kimbrell, Andrew “The Human Body Shop” 1998.
Kimberly Wilson: kimberly.wilson@sfo.greenpeace.org

Update by Hope Shand of RAFI

Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?

The vast majority of the world’s biological diversity originates in the tropics and sub-tropics. The genes from plants, animals, and microorganisms, found primarily in the South, are the “strategic raw materials” for the development of new food, and pharmaceutical and industrial products. But genetic resources are seldom “raw materials” in the traditional sense, because they have been selected, nurtured, and improved upon by farmers and indigenous peoples over thousands of years. When scientists and researchers go searching for valuable genetic material and traditional knowledge about them, it is often called “bioprospecting.” But critics call it “biopiracy.”

“Biopiracy” refers to the appropriation of the knowledge and genetic resources of farming and indigenous communities by individuals or institutions who seek exclusive monopoly control (patents or intellectual property) of these resources and knowledge.

Indigenous People Protest in Chiapas: The efforts of indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico, to stop a U.S. government-funded bioprospecting project illustrates the larger struggles of communities and nations to control their sovereign genetic resources and knowledge in a world where biological products and processes are being privatized and patented.

In December 1999 Rural Advancement Foundation International first wrote about eleven indigenous people’s organizations under the umbrella of the Council of Indigenous Doctors and Midwives from Chiapas (Consejo de Medicos y Parteras Indigenas Tradicionales de Chiapas) who were demanding the suspension of the International Collaborative Biodiversity Group-Maya (ICBG-Maya). The ICBG-Maya is a U.S. government-funded $2.5 million, 5-year project aimed at the bioprospecting of medicinal plants and traditional knowledge of the Mayan people. The project is led by the University of Georgia, in cooperation with a Mexican university research center, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), and Molecular Nature Ltd., a biotechnology company based in Wales, U.K. The ICBG’s self-stated goal is to promote drug discovery from natural sources, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable economic growth in developing countries.

The council believes that the bioprospecting project and the pharmaceuticals they seek to discover will not ultimately benefit the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for thousands of years. According to Sebastian Luna, a spokesperson for the council, “the project explicitly proposes to patent and privatize resources and knowledge that have always been collectively owned. …Besides being totally contradictory to our culture and traditions, the project creates conflict within our communities as some individuals, pressured by the grave economic situation, collaborate with the researchers for a few pesos or tools.”

After one year of fruitless talks with the ICBG-Maya and Mexican government authorities, the council held a press conference on September 12, 2000, to again demand termination of the Chiapas project and all bioprospecting projects in Mexico. Shortly thereafter, the Mexican government denied the ICBG-Maya permission to conduct bio-assays (that is, analysis of bioactive compounds) on plants collected in Chiapas. While the ICBG project is not officially terminated, its activities have been temporarily suspended.

RAFI believes that biopiracy is the inevitable consequence of international agreements such as the Biodiversity Convention that have no real capacity to regulate bioprospecting or to ensure equitable benefit-sharing with local communities. Without agreed rules and monitoring mechanisms, all bioprospecting becomes biopiracy. RAFI’s web site (http://www.rafi.org) provides regular updates on biopiracy worldwide. Together with partner civil society organizations, RAFI has produced the Captain Hook Awards: 2000-a poster highlighting the most egregious cases of biopiracy as well as the most exemplary actions by civil society and governments to halt these practices.