David I. Theodoropoulos, Las Sombras Biological
Preserve, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020-0337 USA
Open letter to the members of the Society for Economic
Botany, 19 June 2002.
(Referring to NYTimes.com Article: Biologists Sought a Treaty; Now They Fault It - on the effects of the Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD])
It is very heartening to read this article, and find a rising awareness of the devastating consequences that intellectual property and the CBD have for basic research. In our desperation to convince the world of the value of biological diversity and traditional knowledge, monetary values have been over-stressed. As the old-timers in my area would say, "They outsmarted themselves!" I must confess to my own share of guilt in promoting the idea that biological diversity has value in that new medicines may come from it - what other justification can we present to those unfortunates incapable of perceiving the intrinsic, non-market value of all life?
But many of us have been warning of these consequences for decades - remember the protests in Rio, even before the inception of the CBD? As Vananda Shiva stated, the corporations had years to prepare for the summit, and got what they wanted. Voices in opposition to the commodification of life and traditional knowledge have been largely excluded from the debate, which devolved into arguments over who gets a share of the spoils - what percentage to the tribe, what percent to the corporation, what percent to the government? Meanwhile, the theft of the commons proceeds invisibly, and everyman's right (in fact every being's right) to go to the natural world for our food, medicine and necessities, evaporates unnoticed.
We need to speak out more forcefully against the CBD, and not thoughtlessly support it ("It has biodiversity in the name, it has to be good!"). The CBD is unworkable, grossly unfair, and contrary to fundamental human rights. I would like to hear if it has had any measurable beneficial effect at all - has it saved even one species from extinction? Benefit sharing with traditionals has been going on entirely outside the legal framework for decades, based on human decency and goodwill.
We need to be more vigorous in defending such fundamental human rights as the freedom of inquiry, freedom of travel, and freedom of exchange of information (see UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948 - Article 13. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Article 20. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.... Article 26. (1) Everyone has the right to education... etc.) Clearly we have the right to move freely about the planet, and to exchange information with anyone who chooses to associate with us, and certainly the right to education includes the education we receive from our traditional friends in the properties of plants and their uses, as well as our knowledge we exchange with them.
If we have in fact "lost," and the world truly does belong to the propertarians, and absolutely every facet of human existence will be commodified, when do we demand compensation for those rights of which we are being robbed? If knowledge and culture are "property" with "monetary value", if the very DNA and biological diversity that are the product of eons of evolutionary effort by all living beings is to be a mere commodity to be bought and sold, to whom do we petition, whom do we sue for just compensation for the loss of our fundamental human rights? If a mere medicine might be worth millions, how much more valuable is our freedom to inquire and to exchange knowledge?
The aggressive colonization of the earth's biological diversity and the paternalistic "protection" of the traditional knowledge of humanity, on an explicitly divisive racist and nationalistic basis via the CBD does not deserve our support. Forcing intellectual property law and the world-view of predatory corporate industrialism onto traditional peoples does not deserve our support, even if it is sugar-coated with paternalistic protestations of "protecting their interests."
One truly disturbing aspect of the article: "But many scientists and some officials say there is clearly the need for a system with two tracks, to separate and simplify work that clearly has no commercial application." If the academic community seeks only a privilege for themselves without defending the rights of everyman to freely travel and exchange information and plants and medicines, we will truly deserve the enmity of the unprivileged masses which will result. There is enough anti-intellectualism and anti-academic feeling in the world as it is - if we turn our backs on the very people whose labors built and paid for every institution, every herbarium, every botanic garden, every laboratory, we will truly reap what we sow.
If we are stuck with the CBD, we should insist on workable changes to it, not a mere academic exemption. The free exchange of plants and knowledge must be explicitly recognized as fundamental human rights. If you steal my coat, I am denied the use of it, but if you "steal" a cutting from my garden, or an idea, or knowledge of a medicinal plant, my use of them is in no way diminished. Claims of bio- or cultural-sovereignty should be limited to intellectual property claims - if a Hmong farmer brings his eggplant or plant medicine with him to California (as they have), no harm is brought to his relatives or his original nation. But if a patent is applied for, sovereignty provisions should be triggered with mandated royalty percentages to the areas where the plant was developed or grew wild, and to the people who used it. As Vice-President Enoch Kavindele noted at a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) regional meeting in Lusaka, "...traditional knowledge and indigenous innovations in many instances cuts across present day artificial political boundaries...", as do the natural ranges of living organisms. Therefore, agreements between researchers and a single tribe or nation are clearly unjust. If bio-patent claims included a search of recorded usages and the delineation of the natural range of the organism as well as the usual patent-search, fair and equitable distribution of royalties would result. Even those of us who oppose intellectual property could perhaps support this as a workable step in the right direction. Researchers could travel and collect freely, as nations and peoples could rest assured that, since no patent could be issued without a thorough search of range and use, their "fair share" of the spoils would be secured. Traditional plant use and exchange could proceed unmolested, and those of us who make and use plant medicine will be able to continue our exchanges. I will continue to grow and use the plant medicines I have received from traditional practitioners, and will continue to freely share these plants and their uses with other plant-medicine users, regardless of artificial boundaries or laws, and I am sure my traditional friends will continue to do the same with the plants and knowledge I brought them in exchange.
If anyone in other parts of the world needs access to the biological diversity of my California homeland, I will be happy to provide what assistance I can.
David I. Theodoropoulos