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Biopirates in the Americas

American corporations are taking advantage of "free-trade" agreements to find plants, animals and even people they can patent and turn into profit.
 
 
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With the establishment of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the United States government and major American transnational corporations hope to obtain unlimited access to Latin America's vast biological riches. Control of biodiversity is an element of increasing importance in the competitive advantage of corporations and nations, for it is the raw material of the genetic revolution in what some analysts refer to as the "Biotech Century." The businesses that covet biodiversity -- pharmaceutical and agrochemical corporations, as well as upstarts in the budding fields of genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics -- comprise a veritable biological industrial complex that seeks control of health and nutrition worldwide.

Once a biological resource with commercial potential is identified, the corporation that "discovered" it can claim a patent on it, and thus turn what was once freely available to all into private property. Corporations are applying for patents on everything from trees and rice varieties to proteins, gene sequences and human stem cells. All living organisms and their components are patentable.

Unfortunately for Corporate America, most of the world's biodiversity is outside the borders of the United States and is concentrated mostly in the tropical countries of the Third World. In Central and South America, for example, the concentration of biodiversity resources is impressive:

Biologists John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto counted eight tree species in a one-hectare (2.47 acre) plot in northern Michigan, while in a plot of the same size in Nicaragua they counted over 200 tree species.

Costa Rica, with only a tenth the size of France, has three times as many vertebrate species.

In the Peruvian Amazon, American biologist E. O. Wilson identified 43 ant species inhabiting a single tree.

A single hectare in the Ecuadoran Amazon is home to approximately 400 tree species, as well as 96 species of grasses and 22 kinds of palm trees.

If geography is a disadvantage, the biological industrial complex has one countervailing advantage: the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO's intellectual property rights agreement confers legally binding character to patents, meaning that all WTO member countries must honor all patents filed in the United States or face economic sanctions known as cross retaliation. In the Americas, the corporations can also count on the intellectual property rights provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed FTAA, which are even more favorable to patent holders.

The hunt for biological riches in areas of high biological diversity is known as bioprospection. But for indigenous peoples and rural dwellers all over the world and international NGOs like GRAIN and the ETC Group, today's bioprospectors are no better than the colonial plunderers of yesteryear. They perceive that in the five centuries since Columbus the agenda has remaind the same: Obtain biological resources for the creation of lucrative value-added products. Indigenous and rural peoples, who nurtured and managed these resources for millenia, do not receive any royalties. Sometimes their role as custodians and protectors of biodiversity is not even acknowledged. They do not call it bioprospection, instead they prefer to call it biopiracy.

"Biopiracy, and patents based on it, are equivalent to enclosing the biological and intellectual commons, while dispossessing the original innovators and users", said Indian ecofeminist Vandana Shiva. "What was available to them freely and what they have contributed to is converted into a priced commodity, and they will have to pay royalties each time they use it."

Bioprospection or biopiracy?

Bioprospection, or biopiracy, is not a futuristic scenario but a reality. In 1998 the U.S.-based Diversa Corporation signed a deal with the Mexican government to obtain access to the biodiversity of Chiapas. Also in Mexico, British company Nature Ltd. is exploring traditional Maya knowledge of medicinal plants with $2.5 million from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), an American public-private consortium that includes the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. government has its own program to commercialize Maya traditional knowledge, called ICBG-Maya. Between 1993 and 2001 ICBG gave out $18.5 million to fund bioprospection activities all over the world, and has worked with corporate partners like GlaxoSmithKline, Dow Agroscience and American Cyanamid.

Some environmentalists participate in bioprospection ventures, arguing that they're a way to create incentives to conserve tropical rainforests. Conservation International, for example, scouted the Surinam rainforest for Smithkline Beecham, today GlaxoSmithKline.

Human genes, too

Gene patenting and bioprospecting are aimed not only at the plants that native peoples have used and nurtured throughout centuries but also at the genes of those peoples themselves. Ron Brown, U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton administration, solicited patents for the cells of a native Guaymi woman from Panama. Her cells contained some extraordinary antibodies that were deemed potentially useful for medical research.

Upon learning of this, Guaymi chief Isidro Acosta declared that he "never imagined that people would ever patent plants and animals. That is fundamentally inmoral, contrary to how us Guaymi perceive nature and our place in it. Patenting human DNA violates the integrity of life itself as well as our deepest sense of morality."

The international scandal and outrage were of such intensity that Brown decided to withdraw the patent application. But beginning in 1994 more patent applications for human genes of native and tribal peoples all over the world have surfaced.

The Costa Rican model

In response to the critiques and accusations of biopiracy, some bioprospecting corporations have taken on a discourse of social responsibility and have set up "benefit sharing" arrangements.

Of these arrangements, the one that set the standard was the Merck pharmaceutical company's deal with Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), signed in 1991. The deal required INBio to provide Merck with samples of plants from the country's national parks in exchange for $1,135,000 in two years for the Institute's research budget plus a confidential percentage of whatever commercial products are spun off from the plant samples. But the sum of $1,135,000 pales in comparison to Merck's sales that year, which totaled $8.6 billion, significantly larger than Costa Rica's gross national product, which was then $5.2 billion.

Was this deal a success or a failure? It depends on whom you ask. In the years that have followed, INBio has maintained no less than 20 contractual relationships with various corporations. For critics, it is biopiracy, but for supporters of this entepreneurial model, what INBio does is a template to be emulated in the rest of the world.

In the last two decades Costa Rica has received endless praise from environmentalists, bioprospectors and ecotourists. Mainstream environmentalists, as well as transnational corporations, the World Bank and the United States government present this Central American country as a showcase model of environmental conservation in harmony with commercial interests. With the FTAA, the Costa Rican model of nature conservation could be exported to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The model's supporters point out that by the mid 1990's, Costa Rica's national parks covered an impressive 12 percent of the national territory and a total of 27 percent of the territory was under some kind of protected status. However, in 1990 the World Resources Institute calculated that the annual deforestation rate was an astounding 7.6 percent. As Vandermeer and Perfecto point out in their book " Breakfast of Biodiversity", that was the world's highest deforestation rate.

So much for this conservation model, so celebrated and praised in environmental literature. "The fact that the model has been an utter failure in Costa Rica, where it had the greatest chance of success, calls the model itself into serious question."

Why does it fail? Its critics hold that, for all their good intentions, the environmentalists that promote it ignore the social and economic contradictions that encourage the growth of export crop plantations and force landless peasants to clear the rainforest.

According to National Autonomous University of Mexico professor Andrés Barreda, Costa Rica occupies a very special place in the post-cold war economic and political strategies of the United States.

"The relative peace that Costa Rica experiences, its important strategic biodiversity resources and its key position within the flows of the Central American drug traffic explain why the United States supports there the establishment of such important centers of research and strategic intelligence for the region", declared Barreda in 2001.

Costa Rica "is where the master programs for the private appropriation of the riches of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (INBio being a case in point) take place, while countries like Guatemala and El Salvador are made to experiment with military scorched earth tactics and paramilitary actions of low intensity warfare." (Parenthesis in original)

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that Barreda refers to seeks to expand the Costa Rican model to all of Central America and Mexico, thus opening vast biodiversity-rich areas to bioprospection. But the Corridor is only the beginning. The FTAA will pave the way for similar initiatives of even larger proportions all over South America. Thus the biodiversity treasures of the Andes and the Amazon will be in open season, bioprospectors operating under the banner of free trade and environmental protection and with the blessing of hemisphere-wide intellectual property rights provisions.

Debt for nature

Buying land for conservation and bioprospction costs money. Where will the capital come from? Enter the debt-for-nature swaps, an ingenious financial mechanism devised in the 1980's. In these transactions, large environmental organizations with sizable budgets pay part of the external debt of Third World countries. In exchange for this financial relief, the country's government makes a commitment to use part of the money it saved on environmental conservation projects, which include the purchase of rainforest lands.

Examples: the World Wildlife Fund gave debt relief to Ecuador, in exchange for which the government gave a donation to Fundación Natura, a local environmental group, to administer and protect national parks and nature preserves. The Dominican Republic did one such swap with the help of the Nature Conservancy, the Bank of Boston and the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust.

Contrary to what many American environmentalists believe, not all of their Latin American counterparts are thrilled with debt-for-nature swaps. But the critical voices south of the border have gone largely unheeded.

According to Amparo Chantada, of the Dominican Republic's Movimiento Ambiente y Sociedad, "The projects [funded by the swap] were not significant or of priority in the order of national concerns. And none of them were consulted with the rest of the environmental movement."

Ecuadoran environmentalist Esperanza Martínez says that with the swaps, "the developed countries will have assured for themselves control of our economies and will end up burying once and for all our comparative advantages based on natural riches -- We are raffling our biological diversity so that the developed countries can broaden their gap vis-à-vis the Third World and so that they can impose new forms of dependency and wealth extraction."

The fourth Destiny and Hope of the Earth Congress, celebrated in Nicaragua in 1989 denounced the swaps as a strategy to support "major genetic engineering and biotechnology firms that need the Third World in order to reinforce the high-technology hybrids used in agriculture, or for the biological synthesis of industrialized medicines."

Back to the FTAA: a morbid footnote

NAFTA and the FTAA are more powerful than the WTO as tools to facilitate and enforce the corporate appropriation of biodiversity because unlike the WTO, NAFTA and the FTAA allow private parties to sue governmnts. In concrete terms, this means that if a Latin American country balks at corporations patenting their flora and fauna or puts even the smallest obstacle or limit to bioprospection, it can be sued by foreign investors for violating its FTAA commitments.

If the courts don't work there's always the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency willing to lend a hand to distressed American investors. In 1996 U.S. president Bill Clinton signed the Economic Espionage Act, which authorizes intelligence agencies to defend the intellectual property rights of American corporations all over the world. With this Act and with the FTAA the evcryday activities of ordinary people all over the Americas can be monitored in the name of free trade and U.S. national security.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is also a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology and a fellow at the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Environmental Leadership Program.