Bio-Piracy: A Brief Overview
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.
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]