Biosafety, Patents and Biopiracy

(News from Brazil, 17.05.99)

A record 1200 turned up for the International Seminar on Biodiversity Law held in the auditorium of the Superior Court in Brasilia 11 to 14 May, 1999. The seminar was organised jointly by the President of the Centre for Judiciary Studies, Antonio de Padua Riberio and the Director of the General Coordinating Office of Federal Justice, Fontes De Alencar, who is also the regional judge of Rio Grande do Sul, and was opened by the vice-President of the Republic. The participants included a large number of distinguished federal and state judges. Others present were indigenous peoples' leaders, civil servants, activists, staff of foreign embassies, students and scientists. The organizers had expected 50 to 100. Instead, the autorium of 800 capacity was filled, and an overflow audience sat outside the hall with televised coverage. Gisela De Alencar, legal consultant on environmental law to the House of Representatives and one of the organiser of the event was "astonished and delighted" at the large turnout.

The most topical area of discussion was biotechnology, especially over patents on seeds, biopiracy and biosafety. The seminar happens to coincide with a series of battles over field trials and commercial approval of Monsanto's transgenic soya by the heavily pro-biotech National Technical Committee on Biosafety. This has pitched state governments against the federal government, and different departments of the federal government find themselves in opposition. A consortium consisting of the federal Environment Protection Agency, Greenpeace and the Consumer Defence Institute are locked in a legal battle against the National Technical Committee on Biosafety in partnership with Monsanto. The federal court has decided to approve Monsanto's transgenic soya bean for commercial release but requires Monsanto to segregate and label the produce. However, Monsanto is trying to overturn this requirement with the help of the National Technical Committee on Biosafety. Feelings ran very high over this issue.

The State of Rio Grande do Sul has led the revolt by banning Monsanto's transgenic soya from being planted. Just before the seminar, all 27 states of the Republic voted unanimously for a moratorium until environmental impact studies have been done. Jurist Paulo Affonso Leme Machado, President of the Brazilian Society of Environmental Law said, "it is incumbent on the federal government to prove its action is not harmful to the environment. The federal government must abide by the decision of the states to require environmental impact studies before approving commercial release."

According to David Hathaway, an economist of The Consultancy and Services in Agricultural Projects and Techniques, Monsanto has bought up 60% of all the seed companies in Brazil in a space of two years. It now has some 700 undisclosed test sites for transgenic crops. This has incensed indigenous farmers all over the country, both because of the threat of seed monopoly and the adverse impacts on biodiversity.

Mae-Wan Ho, geneticist and biophysicist from the Open University and scientific advisor to the Third World Network, exposed the myth that transgenic agriculture is needed to feed the world. "The intensification of corporate monopoly on food is going to cause famine. It also diverts us from implementing the sustainable, organic agriculture that can truly guarantee food security and improvement of health for all." She also reviewed the scientific evidence pointing to the dangers of a technology "that has the potential to destroy all life on earth", especially when it is being misguided by a discredited, reductionist science that has little or no contact with reality.

Biopiracy is another burning issue. Gurdial Nijar, legal consultant of the Third World Network, pointed out that "indigenous knowledge has fed, clothed and healed the world for millenia". The concept of patenting and owning life is antithetical to all culture in the Third World. Furthermore, it denies the "cumulative innovative genius" of farmers over the generations. (The same argument actually applies to a lot of patents on genes and cell lines - it denies the cumulative innovations of generations of scientists who have worked hard to gain the knowledge involved.) Marina Silva, Senator of the Federal Government and well-known champion for indigenous rights, spoke passionately of the need to protect local communities and the inextricable link between human and natural biodiversity. This is reinforced by Clovis Wapixana, Indian Leader of the Indian-Affair council of Roraima, who drew attention to the extensive, deep knowledge of indigenous plants and animals possessed by the Amazonian Indians which alone can sustain natural biodiversity. One big problem is expropriation of land by corporations. Predatory fishing, logging and poisoning of rivers by prospectors happen on a daily basis, but the state has not intervened. Now to top the insult, bioprospectors are expropriating their knowledge.

A notorius case involves an ethnobotanist from Oxford University, Conrad Gorinsky, who has patented the extracts of two plants bibiru (used as contraceptive) and cunani (used as anaethetic and as fish poison) from the North of Brazil. When asked by journalist Mario Cesar Carvalho whether he knew he was contravening the Convention of Biological Diversity which stipulates that there should be equitable benefit sharing, Gorinsky is reported to have laughed and said,"Why should I share royalties with Brazilians?"

Even more scandalous is the fact that a US company, Coryll Cell Repositories lists Amazonian Indian blood cells in a DNA kit priced at $500. This is openly advertised on the internet.

Actually, biopiracy is not new. Adalberto Carim Antonio, Judge of the State of Amazonas, points out that 70 000 seeds were taken by Harry Wickham on behalf of the Kew Gardens in Britain. Wickham was subsequently knighted for his efforts, but this act plunged the state of Amazonas into poverty for 50 years.

When is the Brazillian Government going to register indigenous knowledge to prevent patenting? Is the mere act of registering indigenous knowledge going to encourage biopiracy? There is no control over tourists stealing seeds or rare species of animals being exported.

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By the Institute of Science in Society, an independent, non-profit research and educational organisation dedicated to developing and promoting socially responsible science, sustainable science, science for the public good and the integration of science in society.