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The Great Gene Robbery II
By Devinder Sharma

pillola cialis scaduta

cialis generico


The world’s largest collection of plant germplasm, some 6,00,000 plant accessions, are in a safe custody under the control of the US Department of Agriculture. These genetic resources that lie stored at Fort Collins/Fort Knox in the United States are outside the purview of any international treaty. The countries from where these were collected have no control or say over these resources, nor do they get any benefit from providing these valuable resources.

This is the outcome of the Great Gene Robbery part 1.

Some 30 years later, the international community and that includes the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation (WIPO), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and several other organisations and donor agencies have joined hands to rob the developing world of the knowledge that comes attached with the huge biodiversity that existed in the tropical countries.

In collaboration with developing country governments, policy makers and the scientific community, WIPO is spearheading the Great Gene Robbery II.

Thirty years after the developing countries were made to believe that their economic interests were perfectly safe in collecting and conserving the massive plant germplasm that was getting lost; the world is at it again. And this time, it is the traditional knowledge that the international community is suddenly so concerned and worried about. This is in reality the green gold that lies unaccounted with the developing countries, including India. This knowledge is worth the entire gold that is stocked with the US treasury.

In India, the Department of Science and Technology, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and numerous agricultural universities, institutes and civil society organisations are engaged in documenting traditional knowledge. Like the earlier efforts to misappropriate genetic resources in the name of ‘mankind’s heritage’ and ‘security’, this time the same language is being used to document the traditional knowledge that tells the exploiters of genetic wealth as to what uses the plant species can be put to. WIPO is already putting together a mechanism to draw intellectual property rights over the traditional knowledge that comes from the developing countries.

I have often warned of the emotional rhetoric that has gone to sell the golden hardware (traditional knowledge is the real green gold) that lies in our backyards. It is often said that traditional knowledge, which has been passed on from generations to generations by local and tribal communities in the developing world, is getting lost. These would soon be lost to posterity and the humanity would be paying a heavy price for not conserving and keeping the same alive for future generations. The answer, therefore, is to document the traditional knowledge. After all, it too is mankind’s heritage.

It was in the mid-60s and early ‘70s that the same language and expression was used to seek monopoly control over the plant germplasm resources of the developing countries. At the height of the green revolution, with the land grant system borrowed from the United States well in place, we were told that plants were a mankind’s heritage but were being lost in the process of development. Letting the plant germplasm disappear would be at the world’s own peril. So what needs to be done is to collect whatever is available and keep these safely in gene banks.

We did it. We made plant expeditions and picked up, classified and put the germplasm resources in the gene banks. It was then that we were told that the society would gain if, for instance, all the rice-growing countries were to keep their rice collections at an international centre, which in turn would act as a custodian of the invaluable genetic wealth. We did it again in good faith. India provided a copy of its rice collections for a common custody at the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, in the Philippines. The wheat collections were kept at the International Research Centre for Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) at Mexico City. The other collections went to the 14 other international agricultural centres under the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

We were then told that these collections are not safe at Manila or Mexico city. After all, there is a distinct probability that a terrorist group can blow the gene banks with the result that these resources would be lost forever. So what do you do? You keep a copy of these collections in safe custody. And where is this safe custody? At Fort Knox and Fort Collins in the United States. We did it again and of course in good faith.

The US has these plant genetic resources, has the finances for research, and has the mastery over genetic engineering. But what is coming in the way is as to what to do with these genetic resources. After all, you cannot work out the chemical composition and find out the pharmaceutical properties of each and every plant stored at Fort Collins. The best way is to revert back to the countries, which originally had these plant resources. To find out from the local communities as to how and what uses they were putting these plants to. And that would give the companies the chemical route to decipher the knowledge, draw industrial uses, seek patents and market the product back to those countries where it has been traditionally been used for centuries.

At a time when there exists so much of anger over bio-piracy, sending a bio-prospecting team from a western university or a company would invite the wrath of the civil society in the developing world. The best way to legitimise bio-piracy, therefore, is to encourage researchers, NGOs, and the public sector institutes to document the traditional knowledge. Give them a little research grant and you will have the civil society and cash-starved research institutes documenting the traditional knowledge virtually free for you.

The UNDP, the DFID, SIDA, CIDA and almost all other donors are pumping in grants for documentation of the traditional knowledge. Except for the donors who continue to misguide the Indian researchers, no one wants to know the purpose of documentation. No one wants to know why we have become suddenly so conscious of the fast eroding traditional knowledge. No one wants to work out the economic price of the traditional knowledge that is being given on an official platter. Moreover, who is using the documentation that is being done so speedily?

The answer is that we all are facilitating the process of bio-piracy. And we are doing it legally and with the backing of the international donors. Once again, such documentations are safely going into the hands of the companies who need them desperately. But unlike the genetic resources, it will not take 30 years for these companies to draw IPR over traditional knowledge. International effort has already begun on how to draw a sui generis system over traditional knowledge. It is a matter of few years. The documented traditional knowledge will then be out of the control of the communities, which nurtured them. The tragedy is that unlike bio-piracy in the past – neem, turmeric and the likes – the scientific community and the civil society is a willing partner this time.

India’s proposal of setting up a ‘Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL)’, which has been selected for a pilot study in 170 countries, is a classic example of facilitating the process of bio-piracy. Denials from the CSIR notwithstanding, the fact remains that the proposed digital library only helps to ensure that the biopirates don’t have to work hard in collating information. They can get it on a VCD.

The digital library of traditional knowledge will have some 35,000 slokas or verses drawn from the available literature on the Indian systems of medicine, Ayurveda. It will in addition have 1,40,000 pages of information, which will be easy to retrieve. The argument for the digital library is that these CD-ROMs will be made available to each of the patent offices world wide with the hope and expectations that the patent applications will be matched with the details provided so as to ensure that a patent is not granted on something that was traditionally known.

At the face of it, the digital library seems to be a wonderful weapon against bio-piracy. After all, public outcry and outrage against some of the better known cases of bio-piracy or thefts of traditional knowledge – neem, turmeric, brinjal, ayahuasca and quinoa – could have been avoided if those who granted these patents knew that the medicinal or insecticidal properties of these plants were widely known among the traditional communities in the developing countries. In technical parlance, these patents were based on ‘prior art’.

It is however not as simple as that. In a world where profit and greed has become the new economic mantra, private companies will go to any extent to manipulate what is already known to project it as an invention or a novelty. Any tinkering of the original medicinal remedy with a little cosmetic covering can be easily presented as a novel product that was not previously known. It has happened in the past. For every successful revocation of a patent, whether it is neem, turmeric or ayahuasca, there are at least a thousand others that simply go unnoticed.

The TKDL Task Force itself was astounded to learn that of the 4,896 references on 90 medicinal plants in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database, 80 per cent of the references pertained to just seven medicinal plants of Indian origin. In other words, nearly 4,000 patents or patent applications are based on the medicinal properties of plants that were already known. The Task Force studied the patents and interestingly found that 360 of the 762 patents on medicinal plants that were granted by USPTO could be easily categorised as traditional.

MEXICO: People force government to stall bio-prospecting

Bio-prospecting is a means to conserve and share endangered indigenous knowledge while making sure that any resulting commercial benefits are shared with indigenous people. Others contend that in the absence of effective community, national and international mechanisms, bio-prospecting equates to biopiracy. A US government initiative “Drug Discovery and Biodiversity among the Maya of Mexico” sought to identify, patent and commercialise Mayan knowledge and pharmacologically important biological materials through private biopharmaceutical enterprise and the University of Georgia. This project formed part of the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) Program, which aims to address the interdependent issues of drug discovery, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable economic growth. It was a 5 year project that aimed to collect and evaluate thousands of plants and micro-organisms used in traditional medicine by Mayan communities in order to promote drug discovery. The project proposed to patent and privatize resources and knowledge.

Many indigenous communities opposed the commercial exploitation of their genetic resources and traditional knowledge, even though the project was designed to foster benefit sharing so that local communities could derive benefits from their biological resources. After two years of local opposition from indigenous people’s organizations in Chiapas, the bio-prospecting project was definitively cancelled, by the Chiapas based partner ECOSUR due to the contentious political climate.

Source: http://www.law.unimelb.edu.au/ipria/research/trad_know.html

Does it mean that once the digital library is in place, the USPTO will strike down these faulty patents? The answer is no. Does it mean that the USPTO will ensure that in future no such patents are granted? The answer again is no. After all, what is available in the Ayurveda verses is not scientific decoded language of the medicinal properties of the native plants. What is presented before the patent offices, on the other hand, is mired in technical details and legal complexities that is difficult to easily decipher. There are patent applications pending before the USPTO, for instance, which run into 1,000 pages. It has already been said that a complete examination of this patent application alone will not be complete before the year 2035 !

The proposed digital library will therefore be only helping the companies to easily scout for the commercial uses of the medicinal and therapeutic properties from the database. A minor tinkering or value-addition will qualify it for the grant of a patent. And then, how will the infringement be checked, is something that has been very easily left to interpretation. Even in a country where patent and theft of intellectual property rights has become an emotive issue, it has been rather difficult to fight the piracy of traditionally known products like basmati rice. The Ministry of Commerce had, in fact, issued a circular saying that it has no money to take the basmati battle any further. If the government has no money and the political will to challenge and fight the patent on basmati rice, which is a culturally and politically sensitive issue, it is futile to expect any meaningful challenges to any more cases of bio-piracy.

Tragic Potion

Herbal drug stuck in IPR jam, tribal group biggest loser

India’s wonder drug Jeevani – developed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Tropical Botanica garden Research institute (TBGRI) using the traditional knowledge of Kerala’s kani tribe – hit the headlines a few years ago. It was heralded as the world’s first product that perfectly exemplified the access and benefit-sharing system involving indigenous people.

Media reports suggest that US-based nutriScience Innovations, LLC, has surreptitiously patented the product and is doing brisk business on the line. At the same time, Jeevani’s original licensee claims that there are no takers for the medicine. Yet it continues to manufacture the drug. And TBPGRI is at sixes and sevens over the position of the product with regard to intellectual property rights. Amid the tangled web, the Kani tribals, who provided valuable inputs for the medicine’s formulation in the first place, have been sidelined.

Clearly, the gains from the venture aren’t percolating down to the tribal groups. The Kanis received a one-time payment of Rs 5 lakh when the product was licensed. The tribe is also supposed to get a 1 per cent royalty on sales. In 2003, it earned a paltry Rs 2,000 from this source. Experts are of the view that a chance to showcase a fruitful and equitable benefit-sharing model has been lost. Furthermore, what’s the guarantee that the other collaborative efforts won’t go the Jeevani way?

Source: Varshney, V. in Down to Earth, New Delhi; March 31, 2004

To challenge and fight the patent infringements is simply prohibitive. In the case of basmati rice, the challenge came only from India while the scented rice is also grown in neighbouring Pakistan. Despite first making claims that it too will join the battle against basmati rice, Pakistan chickened out when the cost of the legal battle was worked out to something around US $ 3,00,000. Not only the developing countries, even the rich industrialised countries find it difficult to fight the legal patent battles in the US Courts. A British company BTG, for instance, had a filed a case for patent infringement over the use of hover crafts by the Pentagon. BTG won and the Pentagon was forced to fork out US $ six million in penalties. But the lesser known fact is that the company had spent a whopping US $ 2 million towards lawyers’ fees.

Even adequate protection and safeguards, as spelled out under the National Biodiversity Act, and in the Patent (Second Amendment) Bill 1999, does not guarantee that such patents will not be drawn abroad. In India, the grounds for rejection of the patent application as well as revocation of the patent include non-disclosure or wrongful disclosure of the source of origin of biological resource or knowledge in the patent application, and anticipation of knowledge, oral or otherwise. It has also been made necessary for patent applicants to disclose the source of origin of the biological material. Other provisions include anticipation of invention by available local knowledge, including oral knowledge, as one of the grounds for opposition as also for revocation of patents, if granted.

In the absence of any global safeguards, the digital library will become a much wanted source of information on bio-prospecting for the private companies. If such digital libraries are constructed all over the world, the private companies will surely laugh their way to the banks. And if you are wondering as to why the WIPO and the UN is showing so much of interest in creating the database for traditional knowledge, the answer is obvious. Both these organisations are desperately pushing in for a system that legalises the monopoly control over what was traditionally known.

Documentation of traditional knowledge has therefore to be seen in the national interest before any move to make the community knowledge accessible globally. To say that such initiatives will come with benefit sharing is to duck the real and sensitive issues linked to its theft and misappropriation. Let us accept it; benefit sharing is for all practical purposes a dead concept. It hasn’t benefited any country or a community. The famous case of InBio-Merck deal in Costa Rica, which allowed the pharmaceutical company to do unrestricted bio-prospecting in the jungles of the central American nation, was in fact a classic example of exploitation. For a mere one million dollar, Costa Rica had made available five percent of world’s known biodiversity at the disposal of a multinational corporation (see also Box 1).

In India, the only example of benefit sharing that is being repeated time and again involves the Keni tribes in Kerala. It too is a failed project (Box 2 ). The real benefit actually accrues to those who push for a speedier documentation of traditional knowledge.

The following is text of the keynote address delivered by Devinder Sharma at the conference on “Revisiting Farmers’ Rights and Intellectual Property Rights: Premises and Promises” organised by Green Foundation at Bangalore, May 7, 2004)

Reproduced on June 24, 2009

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Devinder Sharma in
Global Development  > Global Economy > Agriculture

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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

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Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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