ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

11 November 2001


3. Biopiracy Project in Mexico Cancelled


1. Thai PM to act to stop US rice patenting

November 11, 2001
Reuters [via Agnet]

BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was cited as telling reporrters on Sunday his government was commissioning American lawyers to take legal action against any efforts by U.S. companies to patent an American version of Thai jasmine rice and that Thailand's efforts to prevent the rice patenting would be an issue in his talks with U.S. President George W. Bush during his visit to Washington in late November, adding, "We will tell them of our concern on this issue. We are commissioning American lawyers to try to stop the patenting. We believe our lawyers can do that." Thailand, the world's top rice exporter, produces about three million tonnes of jasmine rice -- famed for its superior flavour and dazzling white colour --a year and about 24 million tonnes of rice in total.


2. A raisin in the sun: Whose dreams are we deferring when we patent plants and animals?

Kristin Dawkins is vice president of international programs at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

One of the least understood injustices arising from globalization is the extension of the United States' patent system to other countries via the World Trade Organization. The WTO's trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement privatizes the ownership of plants and seed, giving the agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries monopoly rights over elements of nature.

In early October, the multinational seed company Pioneer (now owned by DuPont) took a small Iowa seed and agricultural supply company, JEM Ag Supply, before the Supreme Court charging that JEM had resold Pioneer's patented seed corn without authorization. The smaller company claims the patents were invalid because Congress never intended "products of nature" to be patented.

Historically, Congress has rejected the application of patents to new varieties of plants grown from seed. But in 1985, the US Patent and Trademark Office decided to grant such patent rights. Since then, companies holding plant patents have exercised their monopoly rights to build an immensely valuable portfolio of proprietary seed. Bigger companies have gobbled up smaller companies, at times simply to acquire access to the restricted patented plants.

In 1995, of 1,500 seed companies worldwide, 24 held a combined market share of more than 50 percent. By 2000, after years of merger-mania, the top 10 companies controlled 33 percent of the $23 billion seed market and 90 percent of the $31 billion agrochemical market.

The Supreme Court's decision in the case of JEM Ag Supply v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International could have a profound impact on global agriculture. The Court should decide to disallow the patenting of plants. This would benefit every country that depends upon agriculture for its economic base, including the United States and most third world nations, and force a public debate about whether patents should be given for any life form. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and recent resolutions of a UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights have already found an "actual or potential conflict" between the World Trade Organization's intellectual property rights agreement and the rights to self-determination, food and health.

Intellectual property rights are intended to balance the interests of private inventors and society as a whole. The public needs access to useful innovations, while inventors need an incentive to innovate. Unfortunately, today's patent system does not help balance the industry's gain with public welfare. To the contrary, more and more researchers are reporting that the drive to be first in line at the patent office means their bosses tell them not to publish their work, and not to confer with fellow scientists trying to cure the same disease or to breed a more drought-resistant variety of wheat. Instead, if they keep their experimental data out of the public record, their company (or university) is more likely to get the full windfall when the research finally pays off.

Companies are now patenting plants, animals and even bacteria at a fever pitch. Thanks to industry lobbying during WTO negotiations, this highly profitable scheme to privatize plants and medicines now applies to much of the world. Not only does it ensure sick people and farmers pay top dollar for the opportunity to buy proprietary drugs and seeds, it also sends billions of dollars from the developing world to the pharma-agri-chemical companies.

In the case of basmati rice, for example, India stands to lose $500 million per year in exports due to the US Patent and Trademark Office's decision that a Texas company can retain patent rights to three basmati lines bred outside India. Not only is the Indian economy a loser, but so too are India's basmati farmers.

All over the world, farmers and farm organizations are seeking to reverse the WTO's intellectual property rights agreement and other free trade deals with TRIPS provisions in them, such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. At the WTO, African governments have proposed amending the agreement to add a ban on patents of all forms of life.

Perhaps Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, understood the conflict between intellectual property rights and the public good best. When asked decades ago by television commentator Edward R. Murrow who would control this new pharmaceutical, Dr. Salk replied, "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Copyright 1999-2001 The Florence Fund


3. US Government's $2.5 Million Biopiracy Project in Mexico Cancelled: Victory for Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas

ETC group News Release: 9 November 2001

After two years of intense local opposition from indigenous peoples' organizations in Chiapas, Mexico, the US government-funded ICBG-Maya project aimed at the bioprospecting of Mayan medicinal plants and traditional knowledge has been "definitively cancelled" by the
Project's Chiapas-based partner, ECOSUR - El Colegio de la Frontera Sur. The US government confirmed today that the ICBG-Maya Project has been terminated.

"The definitive cancellation of the ICBG-Maya project is important for all indigenous peoples in Mexico. Indigenous communities are asking for a moratorium on all biopiracy projects in Mexico, so that we can discuss, understand and propose our own alternative approaches to using our resources and knowledge. We want to insure that no one can patent these resources and that the benefits are shared by all." - Antonio Perez Mendez, indigenous doctor and secretary of the Council of Traditional Indigenous Doctors and Midwives from Chiapas (Consejo de MÈdicos y Parteras IndÌgenas Tradicionales de Chiapas - COMPITCH).

"We see the cancellation of the ICBG-Maya as a victory, but we also realize that we must develop capacity to respond with our own economic alternatives. If not, we will continue to see foreign projects which seek to privatize our resources and knowledge." - Rafael AlarcÛn, advisor to COMPITCH

ECOSUR's decision to withdraw its support for ICBG-Maya is the final blow for the ill-conceived biopiracy project - which not only faced widespread opposition from indigenous peoples organizations in Chiapas, but also last year failed to get regulatory approval from the Mexican government (that is, permission to conduct bio-assays on collected plant materials).

The $2.5 million dollar ICBG-Maya project, entitled "Drug Discovery and Biodiversity among the Maya in Mexico," was funded by the US government in September 1998, and included the University of Georgia-Athens (UGA), USA, the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico, and Molecular Nature Limited (MNL), a Welsh biotechnology company. The International Collaborative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), is a US government initiative involving the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of
Agriculture (USDA).

No Means No!

"Despite all the talk about 'prior informed consent' and the 'right to say no,' it took two years for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas to convince the ICBG-Maya that no means no. The Project was unacceptable to many indigenous communities in Chiapas that oppose commercial exploitation of their genetic resources and traditional knowledge," explains Silvia Ribeiro of ETC group. "ECOSUR has made a responsible decision and now seeks to re-build community support for its public research programs," adds Ribeiro.

Slow to Go

The ICBG Maya Project was staunchly defended by its director, anthropologist Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia. Failing to win consensus at the local level, and facing increasing criticism internationally, Berlin sought to redesign the project and salvage it. In August 2001 Berlin proposed to ECOSUR that a re-designed project would seek to define the risks and benefits of bioprospecting, train indigenous leaders on ethical norms related to prior informed consent, and develop an informational campaign on the risks and benefits of bioprospecting for indigenous communities. Although ICBG approved the new project, to be financed by a re-direction of funds from the first ICBG Maya proposal, the advisory board of ECOSUR rejected it. On 7 October 2001, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to win approval for the project, a representative from the US Embassy in Mexico travelled to Chiapas to meet with representatives from COMPITCH, the indigenous group in Chiapas most active in protesting the project. Again, the local communities said no.

Lessons Learned?

The decisive rejection of the ICBG-Maya, and the continuing struggles of indigenous peoples in Chiapas to defend their collective rights over biodiversity and traditional knowledge, offers valuable lessons for bioprospectors worldwide, including the US-government's remaining ICBG projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Ultimately, neither well-meaning anthropologists nor civil society organizations can make decisions for indigenous peoples; nor can outsiders appoint organizations to determine who will legitimately represent the interests of indigenous communities. The collective rights of indigenous peoples must be respected, as well as the fundamental right of local communities to veto projects that target their resources and knowledge.

In a world where biological products and processes are being privatized and patented, and where Farmers' Rights are being trampled by intellectual property and trade agreements, it is not surprising that proprietary rights are confounding negotiations at the local, national and international levels. Equity-based bioprospecting is a myth in the absence of regulatory mechanisms that safeguard the rights and interests of farmers, indigenous peoples and local communities.

Unanswered Questions

What will happen to plant materials collected in Chiapas prior to the termination of the Project? While it is understood that bio-assays were not conducted on these plants, how will the University of Georgia and ECOSUR insure that any plant collections are repatriated to the local communities?

For more information, contact:

Silvia Ribeiro, ETC group:  tel: 52-5563-2664

Hope Shand, ETC group:   tel: (919) 960-5223

In Chiapas: Consejo de Medicos y Parteras Indigenas Tradicionales de
Chiapas - COMPITCH
Antonio Perez Mendez, Rafael Alarcon (52) 967 85438 :

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly RAFI, is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. The ETC group (pronounced Etcetera group) is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.

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