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Bio-Piracy: A Brief Overview

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Biopiracy refers to illegal exploitation of biological resources and the indigenous knowledge associated with it, for commercial gain. The traditional knowledge, processes and resources widely known in the indigenous population is misappropriated for commercial benefits without any proper compensation awarded to the rightful owners. Biopiracy operates through unfair application of patents to genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

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On broad terms; bio-prospecting – which involves quest for prospective useful biological resources with their indigenous knowledge, can be attributed as the primary cause of biopiracy. Though not directly responsible, it invariably leads to biopiracy.

The natives possessing knowledge of the biodiversity of the region seldom are involved in commercialization of such resources. But imposing IPR over such knowledge leads to privatization of life. This confers rights only to a specific set of people and acts as a threat for the community at large in access to 3 major aspects – food, water and health care.

The patent holder will unfairly benefit from sole rights being granted. This doesn’t hold good; especially when it involves more of an obvious result of nature rather than a product of human efforts or skill.

It widely affects the countries which are highly relying on agriculture. Farmers worldwide are outraged that plants they developed are being hijacked by companies. A number of environmentalists, political leaders and eco friendly organizations are voicing hard against the unethical act of corporate patenting of living things.

Among many such cases Texas, a USA based company patented a strain of Basmati rice crossed with a semi-dwarf variety has been quite an issue in recent times. Rice Tec claimed that the variety (named Texmati) was a type of the framed fragrant type. But for the farmers in the northern sub-Himalayas Basmati is the communal property that they are unfairly affected by the patent ownership.

The knowledge and efforts developed for centuries by the third world communities mostly comprising of smaller group of agricultural people are not being acknowledged and indeed are discarded, while the unknown owners are being benefited by leaps and bounds by the authorization of patents for genetic and biological materials and on living organisms by the legally approved IPR firms. These are Patent monopolies with a show of magnanimity they concede very little to few lucky indigenous people.

Patent monopolies on plants, animal varieties, genes and on new medicines threaten to harm developing nations in three ways. First by raising prices that most citizens have no access to these new developments; second by blocking the local production when the patent owner intended; third by forbidding farmers to continue breeding them as it has been done for several hundred years. Even the rightful owners who cultivate them are restrained from using it, because of the high prices of it.

Hence the developing nations need to protect their citizen’s interest by shielding them from such illegal patents. But developing countries needs support from the world opinion in order to do this. Because this is a war against the corporate which are backed up by heavy financial support that they could easily implicate threats of economic warfare on most of the under-developed or developing countries. These companies strongly advocate that the company investors are entitled to monopolies, no matter how they affect others.

The idea of bio-piracy offers the multi-nationals and the governments that work for them an easy way to cement forever the regime of monopolies. Very few fortunate indigenous people get tiny benefits from these companies who are profited in millions. But most of the indigenous people and farmers were heavily affected.

For the past few years NGO’s like RAFI, GRAIN and the third world network have been networking to raise awareness over the phenomenon of ‘biopiracy’. And with lots of hope on the Biodiversity convention which is presently more friendly in recognizing farmers rights to their knowledge over the issue, it is believed that the IP rights are finely balanced between recognizing the need to implement IPRs and the need to ensure that IPRs do not block the sustainable use of biodiversity.

What is righteous is that the third world communities and the indigenous people are given their freedom to manufacture medicines without giving royalties to multinationals and the freedom to cultivate and breed all sort of plants and animals for agriculture and if they need to use genetic engineering, they should be free to commission the genetic modifications that suit their needs. After all stealing one’s hard work and gaining from it is not very ethical or complimentary.

[Note: This piece was prepared with the inputs with  PatnMarks’ biosciences staff]

  1. Altaf Rahman says

    @ AV, Nice article.

    Its all about ethics.

    Recently I have seen a programme in either Nat Geo or Discovery which showed how these western MNCs still loot poor communities in Brazilian rain forests.
    They recruit some free lance scientists deep into the forests to study the life styles of remote jungle communities (in the name of studies for scientific development). Actually these advance parties are more interested in knowing how the tribes survive in harsh environment. The innocent locals show them around and how they treat locals in case of certain deceases, poisoning etc using herbs. They collect the samples and send them back to their western companies which formulate drugs for western societies and make money while the knowledge centers in the deep forests which pass on the knowledge from generation to generation do not benifit in any way.
    The whole problem is with the western society which still considers at heart themselves lords over the known world and think they can get away with any unethical act.
    The same mentality is causin pain to we Indians too in the field of Clinical trails.
    They hire some unethical unpatriotic medical professionals to conduct cetain untested trails on humans to see the effects.
    In west in case of clinical trails the company or its representative has to explain the situation, the consequences to the person taking ttrail drugs and will be reasonably compensated in case of negetive results. The same when outsourced to Indian doctors, they prescribe the medicine to uninformed patients or villagers and no responsibility is taken in case of negetive results. In effect the MNCs are not taking any risk but reaping the benifits.
    Same mentality in the case of dumping banned products. Take the case of Asbestos or DDT. The products are banned for use in US. The US companies as they can not close their factories (thereby rendering US ppl unemployed) they export to third world countries or shift the plants there.
    Same mentality with exporting toxic waste to poor countries in the garb of supplying raw material to waste recycling plants.

    For all the ills of the third owrld (or even developing nations) most of the causes are in the way these unethical MNCs think. Some of our locals are making their beliefs true by collaborating with them for petty profits.

    Some country has to stand up for the cause of poor countries. I dont think any country has the guts and resources to challenge west except India and China.

    Atleast articles like this will create some awareness among common man.

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