Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge

by Vandana Shiva, 1997

Cambridge: South End Press; Toronto: Between the Lines; 148 pages

Review by Elisa Peter


Five hundred years after Columbus, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) treaty of the final act of GATT represents the ultimate phase of colonization.

In her latest book Biopiracy, environmentalist Vandana Shiva, describes a tree in India that has been used for centuries as a biopesticide and a medicine for its anti-bacterial properties. Indigenous communities have invested centuries of care, respect, and knowledge in propagating and protecting the Neem tree. Today, this heritage is being stolen: since 1985, over a dozen patents have been taken out by U.S. and Japanese firms on Neem-based formulas and toothpastes, granting the companies exclusive rights to the products of the tree.

Patents, and Intellectual Property Rights in general, are theoretically property rights to products of the mind. When property rights to life forms are claimed, it is on the basis of their being new, novel, not occurring in nature. However, Shiva shows how TRIPs are based on a highly restricted concept of innovation and Eurocentric notions of property, that favor TNCs to the detriment of citizens in general, and Third World peasants, indigenous people, and women in particular.

The main argument used to promote TRIPs is to improve the use of natural resources through the financial reward and stimulation of creativity. But for Shiva, TRIPs negate the creativity of nature that has no or low instrumental value to humans. They also hinder the free exchange of ideas and knowledge as secrecy and competition are introduced to science. In a word, TRIPs only recognise innovation when it generates profits, not when it meets social needs. Seventy-five percent of the 120 active coumpounds isolated from plants and used in modern medecine were known to indigenous people--a market estimated at $43 billion.

Moreover, Shiva demonstrates how patents are less concerned with innovation than with territory. TRIPs are recognised only as private, not common property. The mere ability to modify and alter (shifting genes, making a toothpaste out of a tree, etc.) is seen as creation and translated into the power and right to own. The appropriation of natural resources and tradtional knowledge by corporate power ranges from medicinal plants to the interior spaces of human beings. In 1996, Myriad Pharmaceutical (U.S.) patented the breast cancer of women, in order to get a monopoly on diagnostic and testing. The cell lines of the Hagahai of Papua New Guinea and the Guami of Panama are patented by the U.S. Commerce Secretary. The list goes on and on.

The creation of monopoly rights generates tremendous profits for the corporate business who gain exclusive commercial rights over products, methods of production, living beings, and their future generations. Not only are TRIPs a goldmine, but they also represent the path to global market domination since they reinforce the concentration of the agribusiness sector (most of the patents are currently being claimed by chemical and seeds corporations). For instance, soya beans have been made resistant to Ciba-Geigy's Atrazine herbicide, which triggered an increase of its annual sales by $120 million.

Shiva goes further: as biodiversity is being converted from a local common into an enclosed private property, the western company is increasingly seen as the only source for medical and agricultural uses of biodiversity. As a result, local knowledge is being devaluated and local rights are being displaced. The cultural and intellectual contribution of non-western knowledge systems are being systematically erased and lost forever. This is what Shiva calls bioimperialism.

Farmers rights as breeders and innovators are also undermined. Shiva gives the example of the Dunkel Draft of GATT that--if implemented--will make the farmer who saves and replants the seed of a patented plant a violator of the law. Through patent protection, the farmers are turned into mere suppliers of free raw material for a centralized global corporate culture, who swallows up biodiversity and cultural diversity to the benefit of a few. Farmers become totally dependant on industrial supplies for vital inputs such as seeds, and have to pay royalties for products that they have used and protected for centuries. The incentive for on-farm conservation is undone, which leads to rapid genetic erosion.

For cultural and biological diversity are interdependent. Shiva explains how biodiversity has been protected through the flourishing of cultural diversity and decentralized systems of production. Only economies based on diversity produce diversity. The danger of confining, commodifying, monopolizing, and homogenizing knowledge and nature are obvious and Shiva spells them out: spread of monocultures, increase in chemical pollution, new risks of biological pollution, undermining of the ethics of conservation and undermining of the traditional rights of local communities.

However, Shiva offers some hope. Resistance to globalization and patent protection is spreading all over the world. In 1992, the movement Seed Satyagraha was launched by farmers in India, to resist the alienation of farmers rights to seed and agricultural biodiversity through the TRIPs treaty. NAVDANYA is another initiative in India for setting up community seed banks to protect indigenous seed diversity and strengthening farmers' seed supply. The Third World Network, a group of Southern NGOs, has also launched a movement asking for common intellectual rights. For Shiva these networks are the best way--indeed the only solution--to cultivate diversity and promote peace with nature and between diverse people.