Peru's bio-piracy gestapo terrorizes the West

Peru and other developing nations are using the WTO to complain about biotech imperialism.

Published December 16, 2005 12:48AM (EST)

The Camu Camu plant is a shrub indigenous to the Amazon basin. The lemon-size fruit borne by this shrub is famous for its astonishing concentration of Vitamin C -- about 30 times as much as the comparable orange. That's a lot of ascorbic acid, and, naturally, the fruit has drawn the attention of Western pharmaceutical companies and biotech concerns. Aspects of the fruit have been patented in Europe and Japan.

This does not sit well with authorities in Peru, where the Camu Camu flourishes. Peru and a growing number of developing nations, particularly those in biodiverse regions (the amusingly titled Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries), have become increasingly vocal in labeling the Western patenting of biological materials derived from plants and animals native to their countries as "bio-piracy." Peruvian law defines "'bio-piracy" as "access to and unauthorized use without compensation of biological resources or traditional knowledge of the indigenous people by third parties."

Which brings us back to the World Trade Organization, currently meeting in Hong Kong. The general thrust of coverage of the WTO summit so far has labeled it as a likely failure, given that so far there are no signs that an accord will be reached on agricultural issues. But that doesn't mean there isn't anything going on. Countless events and meetings are taking place with all sorts of associated bargaining and bickering. The plight of the Camu Camu is squarely at the center of one shoving match.

As reported by the indefatigable Tove Iren S. Gerhardsen at IP Watch, an incredibly informative news service that documents nearly every move on the international intellectual property scene, on Dec. 14 India proposed "the launch of negotiations on the disclosure of origin of material in patent applications."

"There is growing popular discontent among developing countries over bio-piracy and the misappropriation of their traditional knowledge for commercial gain," said Kamal Nath, Indian minister of commerce and industry.

At issue is whether the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) should be amended to include the requirement that patent applications disclose the origin of genetic material and traditional knowledge in patent applications. Additional requirements could include evidence of some kind of deal for access to the resulting products or share in the proceeds. The underlying issue is that developing nations feel that developed nations have been ripping off their natural resources and traditional knowledge for their own profit. And then these same nations have the gall to turn around and demand increased intellectual property protection from the rest of the world.

Note that all India proposed was "launching" the negotiations during the current Doha round of WTO talks (scheduled to end in 2006). The bickering that is going on right now isn't about whether there should be disclosure, but whether the parties involved should even start talking about whether there should be disclosure.

Drilling down through the bureaucracy associated with WTO deliberations such as these is an exercise that makes the adjective "Kafkasque" sound limp-wristed. It also explains why the pace of change at the WTO is so excruciatingly slow. Because, naturally, developed countries are fighting every step of the way, at the direct behest of corporate influence. Gerhardsen reports that on Thursday, Susan Finston, the executive director of the American BioIndustry Alliance, declared at one WTO meeting that new rules would just add to the work of patent offices, and she even went so far as to decry Peru's "bio-piracy Gestapo."

In a paper published earlier this year in the Global Economy Journal, Finston laid out the industry perspective. "A mandatory patent disclosure obligation of any kind would radically increase uncertainty for industry and make it very difficult to invest in bioprospecting needed to develop and commercialize genetic resource inventions," she wrote. Finston went on to declare that not only is there no evidence that "bio-piracy" is actually a real problem for anyone, but that, really, very few countries even care about the problem, and anyway, the WTO is the wrong place to talk about it.

Of course, when a representative of an industry alliance starts quibbling over whether a certain venue is the right place to discuss a topic, or whether there is any evidence that the problem at issue even exists, then one can be pretty sure that A) there definitely is a problem and B) it's time to start horse-trading. As I researched the story of the Camu Camu this afternoon, it clarified for me some of my own thinking as to why I am impatient with the protesters marching through Hong Kong declaring "Smash the WTO." There is no doubt that the corporate elements in the developed world want to use the WTO to pursue their own selfish interest. But it is increasingly clear that the organization is a place for developing nations to pursue theirs as well. Two of the most vocal nations on the bio-piracy issue are India and Brazil, increasingly potent forces on the global scene who are intent on making the WTO address their concerns.

At the moment, the emergence of a real clash of powers at the WTO has led to a stalemate. But a stalemate isn't a defeat -- it's a clear signal that one side doesn't have the power to push around the other at will.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Globalization How The World Works Latin America