Plant Plunder, Genes and Sneakers: Can Intellectual Property Be Theft?

By Carmen, Andrea; Saldamando, Alberto et al. | UN Chronicle, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Plant Plunder, Genes and Sneakers: Can Intellectual Property Be Theft?


Carmen, Andrea, Saldamando, Alberto, Gonzales, Antonio, Kalafatic, Carol, UN Chronicle


In numerous declarations and resolutions throughout the world in recent years, thousands of indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, coalitions, tribal groups and community representatives have consistently expressed opposition to the growing trend of patenting and marketing medicinal and food plants used traditionally by indigenous peoples, as well as the genetic heritage of animals and humans by multinational corporations, scientists and government institutions.

Indigenous peoples traditionally maintain that the spiritual, physical and cultural well-being of humankind is dependent upon sustaining a harmonious relationship with the living, sacred natural world - a relationship which the Creator has given indigenous peoples the responsibility to safeguard and protect.

The basic components of life, in the traditional indigenous world view, have their own spirits and rights of existence. They cannot be sold, altered or manipulated without grave potential consequences to the essence of that life form and, in turn, to all life forms within its ecosystem and beyond. This perspective underlies the position taken on the issue of "intellectual property" by many indigenous peoples, which is especially adamant as it applies to the growing practice by biotechnology industry of patenting life forms.

Patents, at one time restricted to the protection of industrial processes and applications, are now applied to micro-organisms, animal cells and genes, entire food crop species, and the cell lines of human beings. Under United States legal doctrine, which has served as a model internationally, the "modification" or artificial reproduction of genetic or cell material can be interpreted as "creation" or "invention", allowing patenting of slightly altered biological material, including cell lines "shuffled" from human genes.

Under international "intellectual property" and patenting laws, an "immortalized" or slightly altered animal, plant or human microbial cell line can be owned by an "inventor" such as a corporation, agricultural processor or biomedical company.

In regional and international forums on this issue, indigenous peoples have presented three primary and at times overlapping points of opposition to the patenting of life forms and their components.

The first is based on a principled opposition to any patenting of "life" on cultural and spiritual grounds. Another is based on the position that "bio-piracy" violates indigenous peoples' human fights, religious and cultural beliefs and their right of self-determination with respect to safeguarding the integrity of their lands, ecosystems, traditional knowledge and natural resources. In addition, this practice is carried out with no assurances of meaningful, legally-binding informed consent procedures which ensure determination over its methods of harvesting or use.

A third point is that patenting should be opposed because peoples from whom cultural knowledge, biological resources or genetic material are taken are not guaranteed any financial or health benefits or "ownership rights" to proceeds resulting from the development and marketing of commercial products.

There is a fundamental conflict in worldwide views regarding the meaning and scope of ownership, collective vs. individual rights, and basic relationships between human communities and the natural living world. "Intellectual property" is a marketplace concept intended to create a legally enforceable monopoly so that an individual or corporation can derive exclusive economic benefit from certain practical innovations or physical "inventions" for a period of years.

Such a concept is alien to traditional indigenous peoples, especially applied to that which cannot intrinsically be "owned" in the western sense.

Proponents of globalization and trade liberalization claim that legally enforceable intellectual property rights established under the rubric of free trade will create advances in agriculture and medicine that will benefit all of humankind.

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