By Sam Himes
Biopiracy is an international issue, one out of many facets comprising the global intellectual property debate. Biopiracy is the product of large corporations “taking genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge from…developing countries without permission, then patenting related inventions [without sharing] any of the profits” (Ho 436). This practice is most commonly employed by pharmaceutical companies searching for ways to cure or prevent various types of disease: by finding local knowledge of plants with medicinal properties and studying their chemical compositions, often called bioprospecting, they can isolate and recreate chemical compounds in medicines to address modern medical problems such as cancer or diabetes. Although the local knowledge that a plant may promote good health cannot be patented, the chemical compounds themselves can, allowing companies to patent and profit from medicines that they did not truly discover themselves. Many developing and third-world countries consider this practice, as an “uncompensated exploitation of their ‘plant genetic resources’ in the name of intellectual property rights” (Odek 141). Large pharmaceutical companies deny these claims, retorting that assertions of biopiracy stifle growth in the medical fields and that medicinal research is not always attributed to local lore (Chen 37). Despite the tense atmosphere created by this conflict, pharmaceutical companies continue their research; nearly one quarter of all prescription drugs in the United States contain active ingredients from plants (Conforto 359). At the moment, it is assumed that long-term relationships among developed and developing countries will continue, allowing for research, patents, and profit to continue taking place.
From the perspective of a third-world country, companies come in and abuse their resources without paying them sufficiently, creating an opposition between developed and developing countries. These actions can shed an imperialistic shadow on developed countries and spark questions about their ethical behavior. For example, India has clashed with the European patent system before, most notably causing a patent on the benefits of the Neem tree to be revoked. This opposition was intended to “illuminate how governments in wealthy countries…collude to steal biological resources…by means of the patent system” (Hamilton 166), which certainly frames Europe and the United states in a bad light. This, however, is not the only recent instance of biopiracy. This also has occurred in countries less able to defend themselves legally, such as Madagascar and South Africa; while a settlement was made to compensate for South Africa for use of hoodia after many years of court proceedings, there is no evidence that Madagascar has received any compensation for the use of its periwinkle, which amounts to over $200 million each year (Jiang). It is highly likely that unreported instances of biopiracy have occurred as well, and countries are realizing that this is becoming a threat and are starting to combat it. “Ownership and control over these resources is becoming a critical element of developing countries’ trade policies” (Odek 144), and seems to be creating barriers between countries instead of promoting global growth. Instead of debating the biopiracy argument itself, the purpose of this paper will be to look at the social tensions that exist, and how the research done by companies (and potential acts of biopiracy) impacts how the host countries interact with the world around them. In specific s, developments occurring in Brazil will be presented and their global implications, both locally and globally, will be discussed.
Brazil is a prime location for bioprospecting due to the sheer amount of resources it contains: “nearly one-quarter of the world’s plant species[m]any of [which only grow there]” (Rohter). This plethora of resources has already claimed many patents on varying products, including “Andiroba…, Copaiba…, Cat’s Claw…, Maca…, Sangre de Drago…, Quebra Pedras…, and Wormseed…” (Schmidlehner). In addition to this, toxins from poisonous snakes and frogs also are used for varying medicines and other products (Ellsworth). It is clear why Brazil’s access to many rare species of plants and animals is desirable for scientific research and pharmaceutical companies; any country that would contain a variety of natural resources would also be a desirable, attractive hotspot for such activity. A developing civilization mostly untouched by the modern world learns how to survive on what it has, and likely has knowledge of plants that would cure varying ailments. If these countries were developed to a similar level as the United States or Europe, it is reasonable to assume that they would be the suppliers and intellectual owners of medicines that currently are centered in biopiracy debates. The desire to obtain natural resources from developing countries forms a type of imperialism. Imperialism is not a desirable relationship between two countries: as seen in India, British imperial rule was revoked after many years of struggle and tension. Coincidentally, or rather not, India also has been the source of other biopiracy issues in both the past and present, due to resources such as opium, tea, and most recently Neem. These themes point to a large pattern: imperialistic practices of modern countries in developing countries leads to an exploitation of its physical resources and traditional knowledge, eventually resulting in a clash between the two countries. Globally, careful attention needs to be paid to developing countries that feel that countries are waltzing in and taking their resources. If developing countries feel that all developed countries are trying to exploit their resources, then they may close connections with the outside world or make commerce and business prospects much harder.
One somewhat recent case of biopiracy existing in Brazil centers on the Cupuaçu fruit, which belongs in a family similar to cocoa. This fruit has become the source of an intellectual property dispute between Brazil, Japan, and the European Union. Two challenges are being made to existing patents, according to Schmidlehner in his article on Cupuaçu:
[A campaign] discovered the existence of several worldwide patent applications on cupuaçu oils and chocolate. It also found that the name of the fruit had been registered as a trademark in the EU, US and Japan by Japan’s Asahi Foods and its allied US company, Cupuacu International.
Schmidlehner’s article additionally shares that hundreds of Brazilian residents joined a demonstration in 2003, rallying support to remove foreign patents on Cupuaçu. Although a country may dislike foreign patents of a fruit mostly unique to them, trademarking said product with its’ common name shows a blatant lack of respect to the country and the groups who capitalize on this resource, especially if neither receive royalties for their use. To put it into perspective, if a foreign country took a number of peaches from the southeast United States, trademarked then as “Georgia Peaches,” and patented their use to beautify and protect skin cells, legal teams within the United States would tear down the patents and trademarks in a very short amount of time and the public would scorn that country. The same level of patent and trademark enforcement is not as possible for developing countries, but the same level of scorn and outrage would exist. If a developing country would have less legal prowess compared to massive legal teams in international law courts, then they would likely try to find ways to prevent this from happening in the future by means of laws and fines. In fact, Brazil has instituted more stringent laws to address this, as Ellsworth mentions in his article: “fines in 2011 may rise to $29 million [for each infringement] and companies face possible cancellation of patents in Brazil” if the use of Brazilian products is not registered and made public knowledge.
Brazil has become increasingly resistant to outside use of their resources without approval, charging massive fines and even jail time to those who are believed to have infringed on these rules. Recently, a scientist named Marc van Roosmalen, who is known for his conservation efforts, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for illegally transporting a monkey (Rohter). According to Rohter, Ratliff, Ellsworth, and other authors, it is becoming increasingly difficult for legitimate companies and individuals to not be fined when trying to stay within the confines of the laws, and shows an increasingly antagonistic side of Brazil in the biopiracy scene: a legal obstacle taxing individuals trying to preserve nature or who do not capitalize on their resources. These struggles not only indicate that Brazil’s government is becoming increasingly xenophobic, seen from their targeting of scientists such as Roosmalen, but also result in a dearth of research in Brazil itself: “Foreign biologists tend to shun the country in favor of relatively easygoing locales like Peru and Costa Rica, and indigenous scientists are unable to make up the difference. One botanist estimates that there are only five plant taxonomists covering Brazil’s 1.9 million square miles of jungle” (Ratliff). Brazil appears to have started isolating itself from corporations and individuals wishing to use its resources, however many feel that its actions and punishments are applied situationally, and stifle growth and understanding of knowledge instead of promote it.
Ultimately, using Brazil as a case study helps us understand how developing countries are affected by international corporations. More importantly, it shows a shift and resistance to imperial motives from developing countries. While there are no indications that these imperialistic practices result in Brazil completely isolating itself from world affairs, recent public gatherings and legislation indicates that the general populace and government itself is resisting these practices and trying to regain control over its own resources, as any developed nation would. At the moment, unchecked imperialistic practices from developed nations will only add more tension to the already-tense narrative regarding biopiracy in Brazil, and likewise, will occur in any developing country subject to these practices.
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Ellsworth, Brian. “Brazil to step up crackdown on ‘biopiracy’ in 2011.” Reuters: 22 Dec 2010. Web. 12 April 2013.
Jiang, FeiFei. “The Problem with Patents.” Harvard International Review: 19 December 2008. Web. 14 April 2013.
Hamilton, Chris. “Biodiversity, biopiracy and benefits: what allegations of biopiracy tell us about intellectual property.” Developing world bioethics 6.3 (2006): 158-173.
Ho, Cynthia. “Biopiracy and beyond: a consideration of socio-cultural conflicts with global patent policies.” University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 39 (2006).
Odek, James O. “Bio-piracy: creating proprietary rights in plant genetic resources.”J. Intell. Prop. L.2 (1994): 141.
Ratliff, Evan. “Why Does This Prominent Amazon Researcher Face 14 Years in Prison for Biopiracy?” Wired.com, 19 May 2008. Web. 1 May 2013
Rohter, Larry. “Brazil Moves to Protect Jungle Plants From Foreign Biopiracy.” The New York Times, 23 Dec 2001. Web. 13 April 2013.
Rohter, Larry. “In Brazil, a conviction on biopiracy charges angers scientists.” The New York Times, 29 Aug 2009. Web. 1 May 2013.
Schmidlehner, Michael. “Cupuaçu – a case of amazonian self-assertion.” Grain.org, 18 April 2003. Web. 13 April 2013.