Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's Note: See also "South America Wants End to Seed Theft" in a previous edition of the Albion Monitor.]

Gene Piracy of Third World

by Andrew Kimbrell

Corporations exploit indigenous plants commercially without compensation

(IPS) PENANG, Malaysia -- The brave new frontier of genetic engineering is extending humanity's reach over the forces of nature as no other technology has ever done. Scientists can now isolate, snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, program, and produce biological and genetic material.

This biotechnology boom in the industrialized world has massively increased corporate demand for an unconventional form of natural resources: not the minerals and fossil fuels of the industrial age, but rather living materials found primarily in the Southern Hemisphere.

"Bioprospecting" is a potential goldmine for both science and business, since genetic material found in the developing world may yield cures for diseases as well as cash.

But what also looms on the horizon, and in fact is already occurring in many parts of the developing world, is "biopiracy," where corporations use the wisdom of indigenous peoples to locate and understand the uses of medicinal plants and then exploit them commercially, giving little or no compensation to the source.

U.S. Supreme Court decided that life was patentable

U.S. and European scientists working for pharmaceutical firms, are hoping to find cures worth billions of dollars and have gone as far as to take samples of the blood, hair, and saliva of indigenous peoples and try to patent them.

For example, in May 1989 U.S. researchers took blood samples from 24 members of the Hagahai tribe of Papua New Guinea. A cell line developed from the Hagahai might be valuable in diagnosing adult leukemia and chronic degenerative neurologic disease.

Modern day biopiracy is not just the product of new science and corporate greed, but also of new law. The economic trigger for bioprospecting was provided by a little-known 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The case began in 1971 when Indian microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an employee of General Electric (GE), developed bacteria that could digest oil. That same year, GE applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for a patent on Chakrabarty's genetically engineered oil-eating bacteria.

After several years of review, the PTO rejected the application under the traditional legal doctrine that life forms ("products of nature") are not patentable.

The case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down its opinion in June 1980. By a five-to-four margin, the court ruled that the patent should be granted.

With that, the highest court in the United States had decided that life was patentable. According to the Court, "the relevant distinction (in patentability) is not between living and inanimate things, but whether living products could be seen as 'human-made inventions.'"

Two drugs derived from the rainforest of Madagascar earn $100 million annually for Eli Lilly

Allowing a patent on a life form proved to be a slippery slope: In 1985 the PTO, on the basis of Chakrabarty, ruled that genetically engineered or altered plants are patentable. In 1987 the PTO extended patenting to all altered or engineered animals. Within a few years, microbes, plants, animals, human cells, cell lines, and genes were being patented.

Today, a corporation or government entity can expropriate a natural substance found in a Third World location, isolate valuable genetic material, patent it as the company's property, and have a monopoly on commercial uses of the genetic product for approximately two decades.

Biotechnology and new patent law have allowed companies to capitalize on even the smallest of life forms.

The multinational Merck Pharmaceutical Company has for example patented microbial samples from nine countries. These include soil bacteria from a heather forest on Mount Kilimanjaro; a Mexican soil fungus useful in the manufacturing of male hormones; a fungus found in Namibian soil of potential use in treating manic depression; a soil bacterium in India that serves as an anti-fungal agent; and a Venezuelan soil bacterium patented for use in the production of antibiotics.

Merck is not alone in its corporate ownership of micro-organisms. Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb both have more bacteria and fungi holdings than Merok.

Multinationals are also on the lookout for profitable, patentable plants. In one remarkable example, several Northern corporations, including W.R. Grace, have been granted more than 30 U.S. patents on the neem tree of India and indigenous knowledge about its many uses.

Similarly, two drugs derived from the rosy periwinkle -- vincristine and vinblastine -- earn $100 million annually for Eli Lilly. The plant is indigenous to the rainforest of Madagascar.

Pharmaceuticals are among the most lucrative patenting areas: Some 25 percent of U.S. prescriptions are filled with drugs whose active ingredients are derived from plants. Sales of these plant-based drugs amounted to some $4.5 billion in 1980 and $15.5 billion in 1990.

In Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States, the market value for both prescription and over-the-counter drugs based on plants is estimated to be in excess of $70 billion.

Researchers racing to locate, identify and find commercial uses for human genes from various indigenous populations

Transnational companies know where to find the plants: well over 50 percent of the world's estimated 250,000 plant species are in tropical rainforests. Only a small fraction of them have been investigated as a source of potential new drugs and the rapid destruction of tropical forests has hastened corporations' screening, appropriation and patenting processes.

Even more worrying is that the multi-nationals are interested not only in microbes and plants, but also in the very bodies of indigenous peoples.

For decades the United States and other industrialized countries have been buying the blood of the poor in the Third World and selling it on the open market.

Now scientists and researchers are racing to locate, identify and find commercial uses for human genes from various indigenous populations like the patent application involving the Hagahai which describes the tribe as "a 260-member hunter-horticulturist group" that inhabits Papua New Guinea's Madang Province.

Another patent claim filed on behalf of the U.S. government involves a human cell line derived from a 40-year-old woman and a 58-year-old man, both of the Solomon Islands. This cell line, too, may be useful in diagnosing disease.

Despite the growing number of patents, the patenting of genetic material of indigenous peoples is only in the early stages, and scientists are making plans for expansion.

In 1991, an informal consortium of scientists in North America and Europe launched a campaign to take blood, tissue, and hair samples from hundreds of unique human communities throughout the world. The initiative is called the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), and the samples gathered will be used to create transformed cell lines of each community.

Many indigenous communities have condemned the HGDP. In February 1995, leaders representing indigenous nations throughout Canada, the United States, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina issued a statement opposing the HGDP, noting that it "opens the door for potential widespread abuse of human genetic materials for scientific, commercial, or military purposes."

The proposed research holds little or no benefit to the donor populations, but could be highly profitable to various researchers, patent holders, and corporations, which may find commercial application (from collected material) such as the production of pharmaceuticals.

"This project is another form of the extremely racist process by which indigenous lands and resources have been pirated for the benefit of almost everyone except indigenous peoples," says Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from British Columbia.

In the interest of indigenous people, what needs to be put in place are international structures based on biodemocracy or the recognition of the intrinsic value of all life forms and preservation of their genetic integrity.

Biodemocracy would recognize the contributions and rights of source communities and requires that nation-states renounce the patenting of life and the international trade structures such as GATT that support patenting.

Biodemocracy would also require an immediate moratorium on the genetic engineering of the permanent genetic code of plant and animal species until there are means of predicting the effects of gene alterations on the environment and adequate regulations are enacted.

But this requires political will on both ends of the spectrum. Not only must Northern governments haul in the big multi-nationals, but Southern governments must refuse to allow their resources and people to become commodities of the North.

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Albion Monitor October 17, 1996 (

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