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Date: Mon, 31 Aug 98 11:26:33 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: LATIN AMERICA: Patents, a New Form of Colonialism?
Article: 42260
To: undisclosed-recipients:;;@chumbly.math.missouri.edu
Message-ID: <bulk.4510.19980901181537@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 482.0 **/
** Topic: LATIN AMERICA: Patents, a New Form of Colonialism? **
** Written 4:14 PM Aug 30, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

Patents, a New Form of Colonialism?

By Daniel Gatti, IPS, 30 August 1998

MONTEVIDEO, Aug 27 (IPS) - Latin American farmers now buy seeds made in labs in the North from genetic material they donated in the 1970s, just as South American nations imported British goods manufactured from their wool and leather in the 19th century.

That trend has not just continued. It has taken on huge proportions. For example, more than half the known plant species in Brazil, one of the countries with the richest biodiversity in the world, have already been patented by large transnationals.

At the First Latin American and Caribbean Indigenous Seminar, held this year in Mexico, participants charged that several international laboratories have patented in Europe and the United States the medicinal properties of 5,000 of the 13,000 plants used in traditional indigenous medicine in the region.

It was not just that the transnational companies (TNCs) did not pay a cent for these rights. Some of them went even further, such as one which, during its field research, took blood samples from Mexico's Yaqui Indians to extract and synthesize an antigen that their bodies produce naturally.

Tropical America is still a land of promise, according to experts in genetic resources, who cite the case of Zea diplorernnis, a variety of corn that is resistant to four out of the seven known illnesses that affect the plant.

This plant was not found growing in the forest. Scientists found it in 1997 being cultivated on a two-hectare plot in Western Mexico's Manatlan Mountains by an indigenous family who had been producing it for generations, and using it along with common maize as food for their animals during the dry season.

The potential value of this corn species, from a genetic standpoint, is in the region of billions of dollars.

In an article published in the Los Angeles Times, Alvin Toffler, author of the book 'The Third Wave' - in which he forecast the dawning of a technology-based post-industrial era - makes predictions about the future of agriculture.

Toffler imagines a period in which mass agricultural production, a basic characteristic of the Green Revolution, will be replaced by a model of agriculture in which each plant will be monitored using satellite sensors, computerised machinery and intensive biotechnology.

The Green Revolution, spearheaded after World War II by the United States and TNCs linked to agriculture, hinged on the improvement of soils and the intensive use of industrial seeds and pesticides in most parts of the world.

It was often the same companies that provided the seeds, the fertilizers and pesticides. This monopoly generated huge profits and enormous accumulation of capital.

What Toffler imagines was actually discovered by chemical TNCs almost 20 years ago. Since then, these companies have been investing part of their profits in the development of biotechnology and genetic engineering.

The new production pattern, called agriculture and sustainable development - the name is drawn from the environmentalist terminology now in vogue - is based on the widespread, almost exclusive use of genetically manipulated seeds produced in the laboratories of TNCs.

Through patenting, these companies ensure that they will have a monopoly in global agricultural production.

Transgenetic - genetically modified - seeds can be immune to certain herbicides, resistant to drastic climate change, mature more rapidly or more slowly and produce vegetables that are bigger, smaller, or have different nutritional values than the original ones.

In order to make the huge investments required to produce these seeds, several major transnationals have been merging. According to Enildo Iglesias, regional secretary for Latin America of the International Union of Food Workers, the big race now is between two U.S. companies: Monsanto and DuPont, both of which aim to create an oligopoly.

In the past few months, DuPont has invested 4.8 billion dollars buying out or buying into various big companies, he says. At the same time, Monsanto has been doing the same thing in another part of the market and its investment have amounted to 5.2 billion dollars.

In their book 'Stealing from Nature', Brazilian agronomists Sebastiao Pinheiro and Dioclecio Luz point out that biotechnology is going through a moment in history in which humanity needs to reflect on its destiny.

In no other circumstances have human beings had as much power as now, add the two experts, who are advisors to various Brazilian environmental groups. They have the power of God, not just those of a medicine man. They can create plants, animals, small and large beings, manipulate genes until something comes out.

Pinheiro and Luz say they wonder if it is ethical for a few people to dominate the production of food on the planet and to own life.

Do they have the right to create beings that are going to serve their interests? Can they go into a country, take over its biodiversity, extract the raw material and register it in their names?

According to statistics from the International Council for Plant Genetic Resources (ICPGR), the 1974-1985 period saw the heaviest traffic in genetic resources, with developing nations donating 91 percent of the samples analysed and industrialized countries 8.8 percent.

On the other hand, the industrialised countries received 42.3 percent of the donated germ plasm through the ICPGR, while the countries of the South received only 14.5 percent.

In an article included in a book titled 'Biotechnology: After the Green Revolution', Canadian author Pat Mooney argues that by 1982, the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development was reporting that developing countries contributed some 500 million dollars each year to the value of the U.S. wheat harvest.

According to Mooney, this means the real contribution made by developing countries is greatly undervalued. If all the important harvests in North America were included in the calculation, the contribution would be in the region of billions of dollars each year. Developing countries also make such contributions to Europe and Australia.

Their contribution is in the form of germ plasm, the genetic characteristics added to new crop varieties throughout the world. The North may be rich in grains, but the South is rich in genes, the expert says.

Mooney concludes that the South donated this genetic material believing that its botanical treasures would become part of the common inheritance of humanity, but the North has patented the products of this legacy and now sells its seeds throughout the world, making enormous profits.