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Will a New Century Bring Biocolonialism for Indigenous and People of Color?

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By Marsha J. Tyson Darling, Center for African-American and Ethnic Studies, Adelphi University, United States


Plenary #2: Feminist Approaches to Reproductive and Genetic Technologies: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

“Will a New Century Bring Biocolonialism for Indigenous and People of Color?”

By Marsha J. Tyson Darling

Director, Center for African American & Ethnic Studies, Adelphi University

Genetic Engineering Action Network Conference, Chicago, February 16, 2001

I want to thank Ms. Renska Van Staveren and Ms. Christie Phillips for inviting my comments about the privatization of genetic diversity, and its possible consequences for indigenous peoples and people of color in our increasing interdependent global system. The title of my talk tonight is “Will a New Century Bring Biocolonialism for Indigenous Peoples and People of Color?”

I start by saying that as we close the 20th century, and open into a century of new possibilities, we find ourselves ever looking to assess what is the Good Society. While my comments tonight are not really intended to deconstruct the Good Society, I mention it because in most of our minds we have a working sense of what is meant by casual references to the Good Society.

At this point in our global economic development many Americans see the development of the nation, its industries, businesses and major institutions as an ever evolving economic and political entity somehow destined to expand continually, maybe even exponentially. The pluses of corporate economic growth on a global scale are touted with little if any reference to any negative consequences, unless the negative is that someone, somewhere in the world is in the way of western corporate expansion.

Increasingly, on our minds and in our conversations, globalization is the consolidation, expansion and integration of capital into new markets, the internationalization of production, the privatization of human genomic, animal and plant life forms, the patenting and monopolization of intellectual property rights, and the flow of capital and migrating labor across national boundaries.

Arguably, we are living in an age in which the science community’s technological sophistication extends beyond the ethical boundaries and equity commitments that would protect us from repeating some of the worst human rights excesses of the past five centuries. No doubt, some of you will find my references to past mistakes engulfing the present and future moment puzzling, as many scholarly celebrations of the Good Society tacitly place the end at the beginning of an evaluation of the means. In such a paradigm, the fact of the Good Society’s wealth, power and stature in global affairs is presented as the goal, the end is more important than the means, and the means are some would argue meant to narrow and deepen monopoly and control.

The issue of the privatization of human, plant and animal diversity and the issue U.S. dominance in issuing patents to establish proprietary rights in genetic materials that are very often based on germplasm obtained from indigenous peoples, is at the center of the ethics and equity challenges that confront us, primarily because the creation of a life industry has the effect of allowing some entity, a corporation, a university, even a federal agency of the United States government like the National Institutes of Health to own proprietary rights in plant, animal and yes even human genes and tissues.

Controversial at every step, the issue of the privatization of human, plant and animal, and seed diversity is a global issue that encompasses all of our concerns about North/South interactions and collaborations. Rooted as it is in decades and centuries of colonial and neo-colonial relationships and their meanings, this issue is inseparable from the equity concerns of indigenous and poor peoples.

Let me suggest that it is important to deepen our thinking about the privatization of life forms by looking at the ideological beliefs that made tenable the historical processes of enslavement, imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism of many indigenous peoples and many people of color. The ideologically derived choices and decisions that produced the expropriation of people, their children and their labor, was also responsible for the expropriation of peoples territories, minerals, and plants.

We can discern from this historical legacy that narrowly constructed utilitarian considerations designed to promote and maximize market performance and profits have fueled an age increasingly consumed with intensifying the domination of other people, their natural resources, and even their genes, blood and tissues as the next conquest of the property movement.

In the past five centuries, the property movement has not only been about the ownership of material physical things, but also the legal ownership of persons, namely the bodies of persons. Slavery rendered people into units of production. The ownership of peoples bodies, the exploitation of other people’s labor, the expropriation of other people’s land and valuable mineral and plant resources over time, are not separate from

our current concerns about biopiracy, the patenting of human genes, and the creation of technologies that intensify economic domination and technological dependency for the many.

Consider that by the early 1990s the United States government issued itself several human cell line patents or patent applications, thereby seeking to establish patents on the DNA of foreign citizens, men and women who are also indigenous peoples from Panama, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Indigenous peoples and the international human rights community were immediately alarmed about the far reaching implications of the patent and demanded that the U.S. withdraw its patent. While the U.S. government eventually withdrew its patent, many in the human rights community felt that an important threshold for the protection of indigenous peoples and other vulnerable populations around the world had been breached by the decision to patent another human’s DNA as property.

While this issue is particularly acute for nonwhite skinned peoples who comprise 4/5 of the world’s population, the lack of boundaries and serious constraints on biotechnology’s reach into privatizing life forms puts every living thing at risk for manipulation, modification and domination by a handful of global corporations.

A new form of colonialism is in the making, only this time global food security is at stake, as is the genetic integrity of human beings, animals and plants.

Let’s examine this claim a little closer. The expropriation of raw materials from countries held under colonial domination created a usury relationship instead of a partnership, even though some of the minerals and raw materials expropriated from colonial nations were not available in the global North. As a consequence of pursuing its own industrialization unfettered by others, and as a consequence of structuring economies of colonial holdings so that they in no way developed or industrialized to the point of competing with colonial powers, economic and technological development in the West has accelerated phenomenally.

Neo-colonialism has served to retain a core/periphery dependency relationship in much of the world, so much so that it is exceedingly difficult for a country formerly subjected to colonial domination to be taken seriously in the North . Neo-colonialism often insures that raw material exports and even developing markets serve business interests in many industrialized countries. Otherwise, poor and even industrializing nations are hard pressed to arrange for loans, grants and aid from their former colonial masters.

Partnerships with equity are sometimes hard to come by as western powers accustomed to controlling interactions between themselves and poor nations often want to make bilateral trade agreements and physical arrangements that are “adverse development” for indigenous peoples and poor nations. Again, notice the value placed on the utilitarian usefulness of people of color in poor nations, as in the case of debt for poison swap, a situation wherein western generated radioactive waste and other toxic waste is sent to so-called developing countries so that it is away from some constitutionally empowered western consumer populations. Of course, it bears remembering that there is also an ongoing problem of disproportionately targeting communities of people of color in the North for toxic waste dumping.

Partnerships with equity are also sometimes scarce when a traditional plant is

found that has far reaching applications not just in its respective traditional context, but also in the West. As one of many examples consider the situation involving Endod, a perennial that is referred to as the African soapberry plant. Endod has been cultivated for centuries by Ethiopians in rural communities who use its berries for laundry soap and shampoo. In the past three decades, an Ethiopian biologist has reported to the global health community that the snails responsible for transmitting schistosomiasis that is second only to malaria in its debilitating effects, have died in areas where people wash their clothes with the soapberry plant.

Indeed, Endod is a biodegradable and inexpensive way to destroy disease causing snails that is also not adverse to humans and animals. However, it turns out that the zebra mussels that clog water intake pipes in the mid western United States and other areas are also destroyed by Endod. So while there is a story the main point here is that the molluscicide has been patented by the University of Toledo with 50% of any future royalties going the university, two university professors, and the Ethiopian biologist. This raises questions about the “discovery” and the real “ownership” of Endod, as well as the ability of poor countries to use their indigenous resources for “capacity building”.

In the 1980s chemical and pharmaceutical companies became increasingly interested in collecting, testing and experimenting on the diverse variations of plants and flowers from old and indigenous ecosystems. The interest in biodiversity prospecting and in identifying which botanicals effective indigenous traditional healers use dramatically accelerated. Bioprospecting is the search for plant species that improve pharmaceutical productivity and profits. In the next decade and a half, corporate and governmental interest in institutionalizing access to global botanical and agricultural designed bilateral trade agreements that sought far reaching access to genetically rich ecosystems located in mostly poor South countries.

While equity concerns were often swept aside especially in light of the kinds of concerns I mentioned earlier about the nature of partnerships between multinational corporations and poor countries, the most visible casualties of bioprospecting were and still are indigenous peoples. Consider for instance that agricultural and botanical knowledge and healing is something that is held collectively by groups, clans, and villages in indigenous societies, as opposed to owned by individual monopoly. The equity issues that arise out of the marginalization of the claims and concerns of indigenous people are longstanding and extend from a past based on exploitative relationships in internal as well as external colonialists contexts.

In this vein, consider that western efforts to legitimize large-scale bioprospecting in South America predate even the Convention on Biological Diversity of December 1993. As early as the fall of 1991 Merck & Co. announced a bilateral bioprospecting contract with a non-governmental biodiversity institute in Costa Rica. The institute agreed to supply Merck with insects, microorganisms and wild plants. The institute worked as an intermediary between western interests and the ecorich resources of Costa Rica’s rainforests. This project was hailed as a model even though its benefits to indigenous peoples were questionable.

In the years that have followed, bioprospecting has become the normative standard especially since ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993. The Convention, which recognizes that countries exercise sovereign right over their resources and promotes “…the equitable sharing and of benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge,” promotes bilateral commercial contracts for western access global biodiversity resources. The Convention’s language on industrial intellectual property systems is protective of agrochemical and pharmaceutical multinationals patenting interests while being vague on the same issue for the contributions of indigenous peoples.

By the early 1990s the US government undertook the largest bioprospecting initiative ever as the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (which is comprised of three federal agencies: the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Agency for International Development) authorized a five year public-private bioprospecting agreement worth $12.5 million in Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Suriname and Cameroon. The agreements for biological extracts involved indigenous peoples in all of the countries except Costa Rica. Bristol Myers Squibb, American Cyanamid, and Monsanto were the companies that were beneficiaries of the ICBG agreement.

The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the National Congress of American Indians, the Indigenous Peoples’ Biodiversity Network, and many other indigenous organizations, as well as the Rural Advancement Foundation International have issued written statements calling for respect of their cultural and intellectual property.

Several hundred indigenous representatives participate in the annual meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In 1994, the Working Group released the following statement: Article 29: “Indigenous peoples are entitled to the recognition of the full ownership, control and protection of their cultural and intellectual property. They have the right to special measures to control, develop and protect their sciences, technologies and cultural manifestations including human and other genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, and visual and performing arts.”

As I close, there are a number of challenges confronting North/South interactions. The challenges and opportunities for enhanced global security seem predicated on a new paradigm of shared involvement and decision making in global development, rather than on the old model of white colonial domination or paternalism. The challenge before us here in the North is the necessity to seek balance, set boundaries, and to challenge the notion that greed, hoarding and resource domination by 1/5 of the world’s population is somehow inevitable and good. Such a neo-colonial paradigm for the 21t century cannot bring about equity, and without equity there will not be neither justice nor peace.

Enforceable restraint and containment is necessary, as is the greater involvement of many more voices — citizen as well as scientific. Here in the North we must give greater attention to insisting on corporate responsibility towards contracts or agreements between the North and South. We must support multilateral rather than bilateral trade agreements, and also encourage South to South development agreements. We must be clear that in this age of corporate pressure on nation states that the state is still responsible for the protection of citizen rights and immunities. I urge your involvement. We have to put teeth into partnerships, that is, the fruits of intellectual property and capacity building through development of indigenous germplasm resources must be shared with the people who are rightful heirs to any prosperity that comes from technological innovation arising from their resources.

Many in the indigenous community remain very apprehensive and distrustful of western intentions. Indigenous people are clear and speak for themselves about their positions on issues of genetics research and intellectual property rights. Many, many indigenous people are opposed to the Human Genome Diversity Project. In 1993, the World Congress of Indigenous Peoples actually referred to the HGDP as the “Vampire Project.” Biopiracy is a real and present danger, a threat to the exercise of sovereignty and genetic and bodily integrity by indigenous peoples and by poor people of color living in western countries.

The promotion and protection of genetics science to a point where it is dangerously near exemption from serious and meaningful ethical constraints has unleashed genetic engineering into nearly as many venues as is conceivable. Arguably, the absence of containment in the early decades of genetic engineering has brought us to the painful point where we are now, wherein many of the claims of biotechnology have not been evaluated over a meaningful period of time, yet the industry presses forward with patents and products.

Finally, we should look more closely at what is the social construction of science, and the relationship between those notions, beliefs and values, and what is developed as science, how is it used, and with what economic, cultural, social, and political consequences? Since there is no such thing as value free science or technology, we must examine and come to terms with the consequences as well as the intended uses of science and technology. Thank you.