“All humans have equal rights to the bounties of nature” – Vandana Shiva
Nature is, as Vandana Shiva described it, bountiful. The Amazon region in particular, is a region rich in biodiversity as well as valuable resources that come in the form of the many living organisms that call thrive there. With so much to offer, Amazonia has become an interest to many corporations as well as individuals, who look profit from its diverse environment. As they search for ways to profit, they often encounter indigenous communities who already have made us of the valuable organisms of that region and it is when they ignore these communities and decide to claim the plant or animal variety as their own that we are then faced with a case of biopiracy.
Biopiracy has never been more relevant than it has been 20th and 21st centuries, as never before have individuals been allowed sole ownership of biological matter. The installation of patent laws beginning in the 1930, which allowed plant material to be patented, has led to the current increase in both cases of and debates within the topic of biopiracy. Biopiracy, as defined by influential environmentalist and author Vandana Shiva, is “biological theft; illegal collection of indigenous plants by corporations who patent them for their own use.” The purpose of this research paper is to examine the implications of biopiracy in the Amazon. We seek to explain how biopiracy affects the Amazon region and the indigenous people who inhabit it through a look at the ethical implications of biopiracy, the policy measures being taken to prevent it, and specific cases of Amazonian biopiracy. We discuss how biopiracy leads to an inequity in compensation between corporations and indigenous groups who are being exploited for their traditional knowledge, which leads to economic, political, and cultural implications for native communities.
There are two major ways that biopiracy is looked at, which may be classified under two different names: ‘biopiracy’ and ‘bioprospecting.’ Both ‘biopiracy’ and ‘bioprospecting’ refer to the same event: knowledge from indigenous communities is taken by an outside individual or group who then claims to be the owner of that knowledge and sells it for profit. However, ‘biopiracy’ however often looks at such occurrences critically as the term brings with it a whole set of negative associations while ‘bioprospecting’ is used to describe them in a much more positive light. Shiva argues biopiracy is the more appropriate term to group all exploitation of biological resources under, given the damage posed to indigenous peoples. She proposes that bioprospecting ultimately results in the theft of “collective innovation” or the communal property of the indigenous communities that is generated over through the passing down of knowledge over generations (Shiva 2007).
While it can be debated what term should be used, biopiracy, as we will call it, is inarguably an old problem. In Latin America in particular, the first cases of biopiracy occurred in the late 1400s to early 1500s, coinciding with the discovery of the “New World” by European explorers. The establishment of colonies by the Spanish and Portuguese, led the Europeans to ‘discover’ many plant varieties, such as maize, potatoes and tomatoes, that they then claimed as their own and then sold for huge profits. In each case, they failed to acknowledge that indigenous communities had been using these plants for centuries. (Robinson 2010) Since the first wave of biopiracy during the beginning of the colonial era, there have been many more cases in which the indigenous peoples have been marginalized, their intellectual property rights are infringed upon as their knowledge is sold for profit by biopirates: cinchona bark starting in the 1600s, rubber trees in the late 1800s, curare in the early 1900s. In the last hundred years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases of biopiracy. Changes in U.S. patent laws beginning in the 1930s, which made biological material patentable made it easier for scientists and inventors to claim to have discovered new uses of plants, most often taken from areas in the global south, and to be given the rights to such ‘discoveries.’ (Fecteau 2001) In every case foreigners sell plants that had been used as sources of food and medicine by the native peoples for generations with nothing given back to the indigenous communities.
Although biopiracy may be a concern in biological hotspots around the globe, the Amazon presents a unique combination of extreme biodiversity and extensive, relatively untapped indigenous knowledge that makes biopiracy an especially significant issue in the area. The Amazonian rainforest contains an estimated 30% of the world’s biodiversity and approximately 45% of the remaining tropical rainforest by area (Garda 2010); this has made the Amazonian region popular with conservationists and environmentalists, but very few organizations advertise the indigenous rights abuse that occurs in the Amazon. While the abuse of indigenous communities stems from the era of colonialism, the current exploitation is exacerbated by the prominence of globalization in the South American economy. Since large, international corporations are often the ones who go into the Amazon and use indigenous knowledge for their own benefits, it is often difficult to craft domestic policies that are able to fully protect indigenous rights. This leads to many cases of biopiracy in the Amazon going unchecked, and the considerable biodiversity gives developers more opportunities to commit biopiracy in Amazonia than they might find in other areas. These conditions create the perfect environment for biopiracy and the negative effects that it has on indigenous groups.
Although biopiracy in the Amazon may be a serious problem, efforts are being made to protect indigenous communities and their cultures. However, these endeavors are contentious enough that extensive debate must occur before action is taken. Analyzing these current debates can crystallize ways in which cases of biopiracy may be resolved in the future, which is done by looking at the ethical components of biopiracy, the policies in Brazil, and two recent cases of biopiracy.
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