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Patents: The Illicit Appropriation of Biodiversity

Patents: The Illicit Appropriation of Biodiversity

By Marta Caravantes

The usurpation of biodiversity by ‘legal’ methods is carried out with the same sophisticated dynamics as those distorting reality who call wars ‘humanitarian’ or ‘development’ the perpetuation of well-being for a few.

Multinationals compete in a fierce race where anything goes to patent any piece of life that is susceptible to business. The fashion of the accumulation of patents is degenerating into an immoral and exorbitant profit of some companies whose greatest merit is having sneaked into the legal complex of "intellectual property rights" to register what is not theirs and strip away the rights of use to their true owners.


In recent years we have witnessed what we could call the "sophistication of plundering", that is, the creation of subtle measures, resources and legislation by rich countries to appropriate the natural resources of the South. The usurpation of biodiversity by ‘legal’ methods is carried out with the same sophisticated dynamics as those distorting reality who call wars ‘humanitarian’ or ‘development’ the perpetuation of well-being for a few. One of those subtle modes of theft is the current patent system. The famous "intellectual property rights" have become the key for a few transnational corporations to monopolize the world's natural resources. While in international forums it is confirmed how the mechanisms to end hunger do not prosper, multinational companies compete in a fierce race where anything goes to patent any piece of life that is susceptible to business, be it species of cultivable plants, microorganisms, animals , universal biological processes or genetic segments from human beings.

Tailor-made legislation

Originally, the patent system sought to stimulate innovation, reward industrial inventors, and prevent the theft of new creations. Nothing could be further from what is happening now. On the one hand, the evolution of genetic engineering and biotechnology has not corresponded to a parallel evolution of patent regulations. And on the other hand, when legislation has been created, it has always been based on the needs of large companies. The result has exceeded any catastrophic forecast: patent applications on living material have been approved for a couple of decades, something that had not happened before in history and that has created a very dangerous jurisprudence. Ethical issues aside, this patent fever is
generating an economic disaster in the South and putting the survival of food security at risk.

The legal framework is defined by the famous "Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights", better known as TRIPS (for its acronym in English), which ensure that patent rights are respected by all member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

As if that were not enough, to reinforce monopolies, the TRIPS-plus were created a posteriori, requirements for the protection of intellectual property rights, which are usually established through bilateral agreements, and which are more rigorous than the TRIPS required by the WTO. .


According to the NGO Grain, the European Union has enforced TRIPS-plus commitments regarding intellectual property over life forms in almost 90 developing countries. This requires signatory countries, among other things, to become part of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which means that their farmers will have to pay royalties and face other restrictions on seeds, much more. beyond the WTO requirements.

The political group "The Greens" has asked the European Commission to explain the policy of coercion implicit in patents in the bilateral agreements it makes with developing countries, for example the agreements already signed with Bangladesh, Lebanon and Morocco.

The robbery in disguise

With the legal fabric well-armed, the transnationals only need to create a language to suit them that conceals the crime. 'Bioprospecting' is the word chosen to cover up the theft of natural resources. With this term, multinationals define their activities for ‘exploration’ of biodiversity, especially in areas where indigenous peoples live, whose ancient knowledge about animals and plants is ‘collected’ by these ‘researchers’ as if they were their own findings. The examples of the appropriation of resources from the South are innumerable. In 1994 the biotechnology company Agracetus obtained a patent covering all transgenic varieties of soybeans, a basic food product for millions of people around the world. Monsanto, the omnipotent US company, vehemently opposed the patent, considering that it "did not involve any creative process." Later, Monsanto bought Agracetus, seized the worldwide rights to the patent and imposed a tight control on its exploitation. Among other things, it prevents farmers from saving a single seed of their harvest to sow in the next harvest, as is done in traditional agriculture. By 1999, Monsanto had already reported more than 475 farmers on suspicion of replanting seeds.

But this is only a small sample. In 1986, the International Plant Medicine Corporation of the USA patented nothing less than ayahuasca, a sacred plant of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. In 1994, two ‘researchers’ from the University of Colorado patented a variety of quinoa, a cereal rich in protein and an essential part of the diet of millions of people in the Andean region of America. In 2001, the French company DuPont patented a variety of high-oil corn that was already traditionally grown in Mexico. In 1985, the American wood importer Robert Larson patented some uses of the neem tree, used for millennia as a medicinal plant in India. Fortunately, all these patents have managed to be revoked after complaints from NGOs and indigenous organizations. The most recent victory was on November 12, when the US Patent and Trademark Office finally canceled the ayahuasca patent, after the persevering struggle waged by indigenous organizations from nine South American countries.

The extreme of the patent fever has been led by the Japanese company Asahi Foods, which patented the name of "cupuaçu" - popular Amazonian fruit with high nutritional content - as an international brand. This prevents Brazil from being able to export its native fruit under its real name. It is as if someone registered "apple" or "banana" and became the only one capable of trading said fruits with their original names. The fact would provoke laughter if the damage it causes was not of such caliber.

The value of plunder


The scope of this systematic theft from the countries of the South is incalculable. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), only the value of medicinal plants in the South used by the pharmaceutical industry is about 32,000 million dollars a year. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) estimates that the United States owes poor countries nearly $ 200 million in royalties on agriculture and more than $ 5 billion on pharmaceuticals. In 2001 RAFI presented its report "Concentration in Corporate Power: The Unmentioned Agenda", where it presented precise data on the risks that the current trade and patent system has for food and human health. Only 10 companies have a share close to 84% of the global market for agrochemicals, valued at 30,000 million dollars; and 10 companies control nearly a third of the global seed market, estimated at $ 24 billion. DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and Advanta are some of these giants that are putting food safety at risk. Among these few companies
they control about two-thirds of the global pesticide market, a quarter of the seed market, and virtually the entire market for genetically engineered seeds.

The fashion of the accumulation of patents is degenerating into an immoral and exorbitant profit of some companies whose greatest merit is having sneaked into the legal complex of "intellectual property rights" to register what is not theirs and strip away the rights of use to their true owners. And the worst thing is not that a few get rich, but that the majority are condemned to misery. In addition to the political pressure for governments to protect natural resources and refuse to sign abusive agreements on patent rights, citizens also have a responsibility when it comes to refusing to consume the products of these transnational companies. Being well informed about what we eat and consume is a must. Unfortunately, it is becoming easier to become an accessory to infamy; but ignorance or indifference are no longer valid excuses to redeem guilt.

* Solidarity Information Agency


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