Bio-pirate hunters and the war of the brackets

What does Goethe have to say about bio-piracy?

By Andrew Leonard
Published February 2, 2006 9:33PM (EST)

It's not every day that you hear Goethe invoked in the context of intellectual property. But that's what happened in Granada, Spain, Jan. 30, when Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, cited the great German poet in his opening remarks to the fourth meeting of the "Ad Hoc Open-ended Inter-Sessional Working Group on Access and Benefit-sharing."

"Nature is after all the only book that offers important content on every page," quoted Dr. Djoghlaf. And then he called for more progress in the "operationalization of Article 15."

From Goethe to inpenetrable bureaucratese in one fell swoop. Huh?

Article 15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity covers "Access to Genetic Resources." This has become a hot topic in the developing world, where people have begun to take a dim view of what is increasingly being labeled "bio-piracy." Biopiracy, internationally speaking, occurs when a researcher or corporate entity patents the genetic code to a biological organism without in some form compensating the nation to which that organism is indigenous. From a developing world perspective it's just another form of imperialist resource extraction, and it has long been standard practice particularly for the pharmaceutical industry.

But according to IPWatch, "a draft proposal for an international regime governing the use of genetic resources" is meeting with "strong oppositon" from developed nations in Granada. One of the sticking issues is a proposal from Brazil that patent applications include "the disclosure of genetic origin." But according to IPWatch reporter Tove Iren S. Gerhardsen, "Instead of discussing the content of the revised draft, developed countries appear to be trying to halt the process by saying that they cannot support it."

This kind of bureaucratic infighting goes on all the time at international organizations, particularly when questions of intellectual property are involved. One hundred and fifty nations have signed the CBD, but that doesn't mean that its goals are anywhere close to being realized, especially since, even though the Clinton administration signed the treaty in 1993, the U.S. Senate, under heavy lobbying pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and other forces, has never ratified it.

But if you want evidence that bio-piracy is occurring on a grand scale, you need look no further than the findings of "bio-pirate hunter" Jay McGown, the author of a fascinating report released Jan. 30 by the Edmonds Institute and the African Centre of Biosafety.

McGown, a researcher who appears to spend quite a bit of time sifting through online patent databases, details scores of examples of patent applications for organisms indigenous to African countries. In virtually every case, he could find no evidence that there had been any attempt by the patent applicants to offer compensation for their takings, or a share in any of the benefits. As McGown wrote in his report, "It's a free-for-all out there, and until the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) solve the problems of access and benefit sharing, the robbery will continue. They've got to declare a moratorium on access until a just protocol on access and benefit sharing is finished and implemented. Until they slog through that terrible work -- and that includes all the hard questions indigenous peoples and local communities are asking and all the hard questions about the sources of biodiversity mentioned in patent applications -- until that work is done, the biopirates will keep on shouting in the ears of their victims, 'There's no such thing as biopiracy!'"

But in Granada, instead of yelling, the representatives of the status quo are taking a different approach. As reported by IPWatch, the proposal by Brazil on the disclosure of genetic origin was placed in "brackets" in the text of the report, to signify that there was no consensus on the suggestion. But the delegates from developed countries wanted to go even further -- they wanted the entire report to be placed within brackets.

The ensuing devolution into deadlock is not new, said Beth Burroughs, the director of the Edmonds Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in issues of the environment and intellectual property, in an e-mail to Salon. "At the heart of that deadlock is the refusal of some countries to realize that times have changed and they can't get away with what was once accepted practice."

But the times aren't changing very quickly. Every inch forward is a major contested battle. They might start by quoting Goethe, but then they go immediately to sniping about bracket placement.

Andrew Leonard

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

MORE FROM Andrew LeonardFOLLOW koxinga21LIKE Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works