Globalization and free trade policies have been promoted by many large western governments, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization and opposed by people worldwide.
Globalization and free trade policies have been promoted by many large western governments, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization and opposed by people worldwide. This issue concerns all of us as our health care and the biodiversity of the natural world are affected.
A variety of social groups, labour organizations, political leaders, and activists have raised the alarm that industrialized countries and large multinational corporations have the financial resources and power to unduly influence, and in many cases, control markets and commodities that were once protected by the smaller and poorer Third World national governments. Millions of poor people throughout the Third World nations are struggling to compete and to hold on to their resources.
The “fair trade” movement is one attempt to level the economic playing field and provide fairer and more equitable food trade between producers in the south and retailers in the north. Fair trade means fair wages, fair prices, and being able to maintain strong, culturally autonomous and environmentally sustainable communities. Some fair-trade foods on your grocery store shelves include coffee, bananas, chocolate drink mixes, orange juice, tea, honey, and sugar.
Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?
Modest progress has been made in fair food trade, but in recent years large pharmaceutical companies and western multinationals are attempting to outmanoeuvre biodiversity-rich, economically poor countries to gain control of the trade of herbs, herbal medicine, ownership of natural resources, and intellectual property (IP). IP is a legal term that refers to people owning their creativity and innovation in the same way as one owns a product or land. In terms of establishing fair trade throughout the world, what is at stake is whether or not a people’s traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants counts as IP.
US pharmaceutical companies yearly reap between US$30 to 60 billion from products made from medicinal plants and microscopic organisms from Third World countries. The companies claim they are merely “bioprospecting” native plants but their critics call the practice “legalized biopiracy.”
Harvesting medicinal plants has far-reaching consequences not only for indigenous people in the Third World whose economies and livelihood is affected, but also for many of us in the developed world who may need the medicines one day. With harvesting comes the risk of depletion and extinction of the target plants, but also of upsetting the balance of the ecosystem or destroying other plants in the same ecosystem whose value may not yet be known.
According to Dr. Nicholas King, BioNET International director, the companies aren’t taking only medicinal plants, but “other biological material as well, including insects and fungi. The problem is extremely serious because companies aren’t limiting their prospecting to plants. Anything that is commercializable.” Harvesting this material also threatens biodiversity and intact ecosystems.
Javier Lauro, head of the Peruvian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research, says, “The interest in natural medicine is healthy and beneficial for humanity, but the negative part is that it is exploited at the expense of the native populations and for sheer profit.”
Besides the loss of economic resources, there are repercussions for the health of indigenous populations. Many South American natives have relied on traditional methods of medical treatment because of cultural traditions or because medical health coverage costs are expensive. Now there is concern that biopiracy will cause many of these health resources to become extinct.
Traditional Knowledge: Not Equal Before the Law
Considering the huge profits to be made, “Not surprisingly, biological bounty hunters are in feverish pursuit of the [Third] ‘green gold’,” says a spokesman for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). The organization points out that pharmaceutical companies can sidestep most of the commercial bioprospecting agreements because of the inability of resource communities, their governments, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Convention to enforce the agreements.
States and communities, according to the UN Convention, are supposed to be entitled to sovereignty over their natural genetic resources. The World Trade Organization, (WTO), however, through its Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, disagrees with the UN interpretation of sovereignty, intellectual property rights, and patents and doesn’t recognize nonwestern, indigenous systems of information ownership and right to use. (The right to use of an indigenous herb, for example, can be affected when a company creates a product from the identified DNA and claims exclusive proprietary rights.)
According to international law, “an invention qualifies for patent protection only if it is new and involves an inventive step.” Nolwazi Gcaba, a South African patent and copyright attorney, says, “There is no way in which the intellectual property system can protect indigenous knowledge.”
In Africa, according to Rachel Wynberg of Biowatch, the corporations are granted unfair trade advantages by a “world trade regime” that offers them unfettered access to local markets and legalizes the piracy of “indigenous knowledge and biodiversity through intellectual property rights (IPR). … Biodiversity and people’s livelihoods [dependent] are being increasingly impacted by transnational corporations’ intensifying control over food, agriculture, and healthcare.” Wynberg is concerned that this will also lead to the eventual eradication of locally based, traditional biodiversity knowledge.
Patenting Other People’s Knowledge
An example of the law failing to protect indigenous knowledge occurred in 1997 when the US patent office permitted American-based RiceTec, Inc. to call its rice “Basmati “ by granting patents to the company. The patents enabled the company to use the Basmati label on sales both in the US and around the world.
Basmati is long grain aromatic rice grown for centuries only in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. The long-term financial, social, and cultural repercussions for India and Pakistan of patents on this rice were serious. Many industry, cultural, and consumer groups around the world challenged the patents’ claims of novelty and invention; the resulting public attention led to the eventual revocation of the patents.
Fair Trade For All
Although Third World countries are deeply in debt to the international banking system, there is a sense among many people that there are debts owed to these nations as a result of economic colonialism. To address these concerns, Dr. King, director of BioNET International, envisions an arrangement whereby these countries would be given credit towards their debt for their genetic resource contributions to the world. “For example,” he says, “by paying royalties for all of the staple food crops the world currently consumes to the countries of origin, let alone all the pharmaceuticals, spices, fibres, and commercial forest species.”
Hopefully, increased public awareness and international pressure on the large pharmaceutical companies will lead to the formulation of fair trade policies that protect the world’s fragile ecosystem, herb and plant life, national sovereignty, and intellectual property rights.
How can you help? By being aware of where the products you are consuming came from and how they were harvested, produced, or manufactured.
The health and well being of people around the world depend on it.
Justice for the San People
In 2003 an important precedent was set when the San nation, one of South Africa’s oldest tribes, reached an agreement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa, a government body, and signed a pact that acknowledged the San were holders of traditional knowledge. For centuries the San have chewed Hoodia, a cactus plant, to stave off hunger and thirst during hunting trips in the Kalahari Desert.
The theft of intellectual property rights of the San began in 1996 when researchers at CSIR were able to isolate the hunger-suppressing component of the Hoodia plant. The newly identified component was named P57 and patented. The next year CSIR, which retained ownership of the patent, brought in Phytopharm, a UK company, to further develop P57 and this company, in turn, licensed the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to develop and market the compound.
The San had shared their knowledge of Hoodia with the CSIR, but they were not party to a share of a product that could be worth billions of dollars as a natural appetite suppressant. (A Pfizer spokesperson noted the contribution of the “extinct” San.) After three years of negotiations, the San and the CSIR have agreed to share the profits from developing an anti-obesity drug.
“Big pharma can’t do business as they did before. It’s payback time,” says Tom Suchanandan of the Council for Human Sciences Research of South Africa.