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Biopiracy - or: how common property becomes private

Biopiracy is a political concept that criticizes privatization and appropriation of life by means of intellectual property rights (such as patents) - be it in the form of plants or animals, or parts of this life, or genes, or knowledge regarding the use of these life forms. (1)

New patent laws pay scant attention to the knowledge of indigenous people. These laws ignore cultural diversity in the way innovations are created and shared - and diversity in views on what can and should be owned, from plant varieties to human life. The result: a silent theft of centuries of knowledge from some of the poorest communities in developing countries. (2)

It was in the book Projekte der Hoffnung (3), that I read about biopiracy for the first time. Vandana Shiva (4) speaks in an interview about the Neem Tree, which has been used by the local, south Indian population for centuries, until all of a sudden more than 90 patents are filed by several commercial companies. It requires fighting these patents for more than 10 years before they are abolished (5).

Number of Patent Applications Increases Rapidly

When researching the issue more in detail, I find that patents are a fairly recent development. For example: until the 1960s not even drugs could are patented in Germany (in face of global disease and poverty a very human condition). However, since the mid-1990s patent laws were globalized and by the Treaties of the World Trade Organization almost all countries in the world must now provide patent protection for inventions in all fields of technology (WTO "Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property" and "Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights", TRIPS, very interesting criticism in Wikipedia Article (6)). Over the course of time the term "inventions in all fields of technology" expands further: had it earlier been a description for products and processes, it now includes medicine and individual genes; recently attempts have been made to even apply for patents on conventional methods of breeding plants an animals.

While the controversal discussion is continuing whether patents to seeds, conventional plant varieties and animal breeds can granted (7), now there is already a precedent: it is about broccoli, its conventional seeds and conventional breeding methods (Explicitly it is not a genetically modified plant!) (8).

Convention on Biological Diversity: well thought, but...

I find it interesting in this context, that there is already a binding international agreement: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (9). Over 190 countries have signed it and committed themselves to protect biological diversity and to make sustainable use of its components. But above all, the CBD urges a system of access and fair compensation for benefits that arise from the use of genetic resources. In other words: those who provide genetic resources (such as indigenous peoples, animal breeders, etc.) must approve the use of those resources.

Regrettably the Convention on Biological Diversity has only been signed by states so far - and not by companies. And unfortunately its recognition is not a prerequisite for granting a patent. The result: commercial entities continue gaining monopoly rights granted by patents on genetic resources without making any agreement with providers.

In most developed countries so far, there are no laws prohibiting this practice and biopirates are not threatened by any sanctions. And it gets worse: the WTO member countries are even obliged to provide patent protection to biopirates and to grant them virtually monopoly rights regarding the use of the protected product or process.

Karin Ulrike Soika

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