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Africa’s Stolen Biodiversity – Patenting Life

Last updated on February 4, 2012

It is said that justice denied somewhere is justice denied everywhere. Taking a closer look at the world economy, it is frightening to see that just as politicians and economists manipulate and abuse the poor people’s rights in the South, the same is happening to the innocent people in the North. These citizens pay huge sums of money through tax payments on medicine and food and other products to enrich the giant Northern pharmaceuticals and agriculture companies. The same companies go to Africa and take Africa’s knowledge on local herbs, plants, livestock germ, seeds. Etc. Trademark and patent it monopolising Africa’s indigenous knowledge and resources, hindering the Africans access to the same resources. Africa is rich in useful products for mankind such as -Medicinal drugs, Agricultural products, Pest control products, Food and food supplements and Cosmetics, etc. But these are not for the Africans.

Ironically, the world’s giant pharmaceuticals, and agriculture companies dominating both the medicine and agri-business sue each other and all other small companies to court when they ‘ve returned home from Africa. A hundred companies can end up patenting one plant and call the act lawful ending up dragging each other to court in their own countries. Thus, 100 companies can patent 1 tree all claiming their rights and who came to the tree first. Should pharmaceuticals, and agriculture companies be taking each other to court when they have stolen the seeds, the plants and the trees (indigenous people’s resources) from Africa? Do they forget that all this they took without asking the Africans and other continents of the South?

When reading history on the subject of slavery and colonialism we are always reminded about Christopher Columbus’ words when he arrived in America and saw how the Indians lived. He remarked: “They.brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things.They willingly traded everything they owned. They do not bear arms. They would make fine servants.with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want”. The same acts prevail today.

Biodiversity is Africa’s richest asset. But the knowledge the African people posses is now used by Scientist in the advanced nations turning Africa’s plants, and herbal knowledge into medicine. Africa is losing billions of dollars from its stolen biodiversity. Corporations from the advanced nations; companies and individuals steal Africa’s indigenous knowledge of local resources, without giving it a thought.

Moreover, even if the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, found in 183 countries acknowledges the sovereignty of countries when it comes to genetic and biological resources, no firms or individuals from the North have lived according to the UN Convention as these laws lack the law against theft. Thus, Africa’s resources are left open to bio exploitation. In other words the laws created in the advanced nations qualifies the overdeveloped nations to get patent laws designed to exploit Africa.

The process is simple; African herbalists and individuals are identified and interviewed in Africa’s local communities. The Africans tell how plants and herbs are collected from soil, mountains, bushes, forests, gardens, farms Etc. Which time of season and year the plants, herbs and seeds are available and much more. Data is recorded by the vivitors and entered into computers for analysis. Imagine this, if a country like Madagascar has species of about 10,000 plants of which 80% are endemic what more with each country in Africa? To add to that 90% of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed because of the North fighting for its life saving plants. Two of the country’s famous plants the Rosy Periwinkle, generates $100 million annually for Eli Lily. But Madagascar receives nothing in return. Africa’s biodiversity is being wiped out. Also through tourism, western agriculture systems, religion, wrong harvesting patterns, and global piracy, to name just a few.

Tourism – has been and is one of Africa’s nature’s biggest destroyers. Example trees like the Canthium Glabriflorumis hare disappearing from the continent because they are used for carving handcrafts and artworks for tourists’ souvenir. The Western and European agriculture system did not and does not suit Africa. The changing patterns in the agriculture systems have not only led to the disappearing of plants but have also led to gene engineering of the plants and patenting these plants

Most of Africa’s plants have also been destroyed because of beliefs and religion. Christianity has been one of the greatest destroyers of Africa’s herbs, plants, and its seeds. Africans used to have medicinal plants planted around their homes so that it was easy to get access to them. Some of the plants were used to chase away evil spirits. But all this was done away and destroyed as Christianity invaded the continent. In this way most of Africa’s life giving plants have disappeared from the continent. Also the modern type of harvesting lack Africa’s traditional system of carefully choosing from its biodiversity growth, which sustained all life in African fields. It also allowed a plant to survive while bad weather or insects could destroy another. Still the African farmer had something to eat. Biodiversity fought pests, and insects could eat the plant they liked and looked away from the one they did not like. But if one looks at Africa today from 1999 alone Africa imports more than this estimated market value of insect services pollination – US $ 117 billion per year, for soil fertility – US $ 17 trillion per year, and predation and parasitism – US $ 417 billion per year. Destruction of the environment and biodiversity in Africa is occurring at an alarming speed due to genetic engineered pressure from the advanced nations inorder to put patent on all life. Globalisation has caused the USA and Europe’s pharmaceuticals and agricultures giant industries to increasingly demand Africa’s seeds, herbs, trees, livestock germ etc.

This is another reason Africa is fed with food subsides from the USA and European giant agribusinesses, to kill the traditional seed in order to destroy the last biodiversity found on the continent. Destruction of biodiversity loss of a vast wealth of useful species of Seeds, Plants, Microorganisms, Arthropods, and other animals, all sources lead to useful products for mankind. But with the rapid destruction of biodiversity in Africa, India, and everywhere else in the world there is urgent need for the world citizen to react on patenting life. This is not a process of a systematic search or development or commercialisation and so on. This is a simple way of treating life with respect and not as a commodity. Instead of planting global hate through manipulative chemical economies let us plant global compassion which will produce a new understanding and meaning to life, giving it back its biodiversity which evolves biological species over millions of years before all is lost forever.

Furthermore, Africans are forced to give away their indigenous knowledge and plants that have been passed on the last 1000 years. Africans pay dearly for allowing the advanced nations’ pharmaceutical and agriculture companies access to its resources. The pharmaceutical and agriculture companies take and patent Africa’s resources never allowing the Africans access to the medicine. To add to that the Africans get nothing out of these deals. The Africans have knowledge to plants that can cure, skin disorder diseases, sores, colic, take way, confusion, anxiety, pain, depression and plants that can promote concentration. Most of these plants like the Bourbon also known as the Geranium is used in depression drugs all over the world today, but Africa gets nothing out of these deals.

Talking about depression: The Scientists from the University of Newcastle, Australia examined the impact of the materialistic approach to life. And found that materialistic people were more likely to suffer depression and anger. They were also vulnerable to being conformist. The scientists found out that this kind of people were less likely to be satisfied with their life or even be interested in the environment. One doctors said: “While the possession of conspicuous goods may be equated with success, happiness and seen as a goal in itself, it is associated neither with global life satisfaction and psychological health, nor with a love of life or concern for the environment.” The report continued that materialistic people judged success and failure on the basis of personal possessions. Furthermore that materialistic people saw social recognition as important, supporting the notion that materialism is largely based on social comparisons. How can it be possible that the North who have made most industries blossom through the IFI continue to treat the South the same way through piracy, abuse, manipulation, negligence, plunder and insults suffer depression from having so much?

Another example on patenting life: The Hoodia Cactus is a plant that grows in the Kalahari Desert, the home to the San people. The Kalahari Desert stretches from Botswana, Namibia to South Africa. The San people have chewed the cactus for 1000 years. The plant has medicinal properties and starves off hunger enabling the San hunters to walk long miles. The San people have more than 300 classes of botanists. But a UK company which was also asked by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial research (CSIR) took the indigenous people’s knowledge, changed the name Hoodia Cactus to Phytopharm and patented the plant P57 as an appetite suppressing ingredient. The Hoodia Cactus (Phytopharm) made a lot of sales in the slimming diet department 1998 that the CSIR sold the right to licence the drug to Pfizer, USA’s giant pharmaceutical company. The revenue of these pills skyrocketed into millions of dollars. The collaborators went happily to the banks while the San people the owners of the disappearing plant and the owners of the indigenous knowledge got nothing as their debt rose.

The San people discovered this and sued all parties in involved. They agreed in paying 8% by helping to build “schools and a few clinics”. But also Dr Marthinus Horak head of the CSIR argued that he did not know that the San people were still a living people. He stated. “I always believed that these Bushmen (The San people) had died out and I am sorry to hear that they feel hard done by. I am delighted that they are still around and have a recognisable community. The ownership of medicinal plants is extremely complex, but I have always believed that this type of knowledge is the most valuable asset of indigenous tribes. Instead of weaving baskets and taking tourists around, royal payments from medicines could transform prospects.”

Another example the Uvaria Klaineri: Also called the mystery plant was taken out of Africa and patented. The Pharmaceutical multinationals owning it today still continue to deny affordable H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. drugs to Africa. The biotech giant like Aventis have managed to access and patent new drugs from African plant life. Venturing into Gabon, the Aventis emerged with a US patent (#6,579,903, 17 June 2003) on compounds taken from a small-known vine called Uvaria klaineri. According to Aventis’ patent, the plant produces chemicals that inhibit cell growth. It is Aventis’ hope to capitalise on the plant as to develop new cancer drugs that interfere with the growth of tumours.

Many different Uvaria species are used in traditional medicine in West, Central, and East Africa. In Gambia, the Uvaria chamae bark and leaves are used to treat stomachaches, bronchitis, and fevers. In Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the fruit of Uvaria species are important bush foods. In many African countries, Uvaria medicines are used to treat jaundice and malaria. In Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia the Uvaria are used to treat both people and livestock. The Canadian group ETCGROUP also wrote about the Mystery Plant: “With so many traditional uses, it comes as no surprise that in the past decade several Uvaria species have been the subjects of interest of industry researchers. In 1997, for example, a small US company patented compounds from U. bevistipitata, a species found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, drawing allegations of biopiracy.

According to Aventis submissions to WIPO, it will apply for patents in a total of 105 countries, including Gabon and other African countries.” On December 21.2002 in an article titled: “Biopiracy”, the New Africa wrote: “If the WTO is the mother of all chicanery, then TRIP is the son” The TRIP work hand in hand with WIPO who also train innocent world citizens to become pirates that use their Ph Ds to steal, and kill in the South. Ironically WIPO and TRIP have a very few citizens from the advanced nations working for them. They educate and continue to train and give certificates to the people of the South so that it becomes easy for these people to rob their own countries’ knowledge and resources. In this sense one can say that a degree and PhD for an African is like having a gun in hand to steal and rob the fellow African.

Another good example: On April 9th 2001 South Africa’s IPS/Anthony Stoppard wrote:” South Africa has sold the rights to develop new strains of flowers from the country’s many unique plants to a private international company – at a time when scientists have warned that global warming is threatening many of these species with extinction in their natural habitat.” The report continued that South Africa’s National Botanical Institute (NBI) had sold to the USA based Ball Horticultural Company the rights to develop the country’s plants for sale on international markets, in return for royalties. But it is told that though the deal was signed 3 years ago they haven’t received any royalties, except for the $125,000 grant to start the project. According to NBI Central Executive Officer Brian Huntley, the agreement only allowed Ball Horticultural Company access to 25 species a year for five years, of 125 of South Africa’s 22,000 indigenous plants.

Have you been wondering how one can steal livestock germ? Here is a good example; Let us take Zambia on how livestock germ was is stolen. Zambia has the Tuli and the Baron cow. The cattle have an excellent beef quality and high fertility. It also has high resistance to environmental stress. But in 1987 some Australians known as the Boran and Tuli Producers Consortium in conjunction with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) collected Zambia’s Tuli and Boran cattle embryos from Zambia and Zimbabwe and flew them to the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica. In 1988 they planted these embryos in their surrogated cattle and, in 1990 the new calves called the ” Aussies” landed in Australia. When the second breed of the Boran and Tuli embryo was going to sell in 1994 in Australia, the price for each embryo was AS$5, 500. Which would have been KW19, 117,005.00 in Zambia. But Zambia and Zimbabwe got nothing out the Tuli and Boran embryo deal. The Canadian group ETCGROUP say that Zambia and Zimbabwe should have received 5% of the Boran and Tuli commercial gain, or $40 million dollars each year. Amazingly enough Zambia’s debt is doubling by day. And there are many other similar cases in Zambia.
I could go with examples but those who want to understand what has been patented you can visit the US patent office online. Take your time and think, here Roses have been patented, mangoes and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

The Case of the African stolen biodiversity raises a lot of questions. The West and the Europeans call Africa’s plants and seeds ” poorly documented plants” thus these plants are patented. And how, why, and from whom do corporate firms acquire these plants? Was the collection and transfer permitted and if so, by whom, and did the agreement, if any, fulfil obligations under the convention on Biological Diversity? Have the knowledge and resources of traditional communities in Gabon or other countries been used? Has the patent been approved by traditional communities and Africa’s governments? Aren’t these cases of biopiracy?

If some plants cannot be patented, can specific genes copied from Africa’s seeds variety be the subjects of patents? The answer is no. If the seed, which is the most important reason corporate firms the IFI (WTO+WB+IMF) through the TRIP and WIPO, need to patent why should they have it when it has belonged to Africa’s farmers and people for the last 1000 years? How can a seed that is genetically engineered be patented? Who has allowed that these acts be practised? These rules have been put up by the IFI to keep taking what belongs to the African continent.

They know that it is easy to steal from Africa because the Africans have been denied of a true education and true information and the right to write their own history. So, when the IFI have invaded and destroyed Africa through gene banks and patents, will Africans benefit from their stolen properties? No. All medicines and creations collected and created from Africa’s knowledge, trees, herbs, seeds, plants, livestock germ, leave Africa forever never to return as the pirates apply monopoly on each resource. Thus even if the H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. vaccine may come from Africa’s Shea tree or the Uvaria and many other exploited life giving trees in Africa, the IFI through the WTO will continue denying Africans the right to their own resources as they always have.

In the process the IFI will keep building orphanages, charity organisations through many other organisation and people, for the African children whose parents die from lack of human rights. Can the IFI learn from slavery, colonial, or the today’s (protectionism) protected globalised economy? It is told that the great slave trade ended in 1885, and colonialism in 1960. 75 years passed. So when are we going to start talking about getting rid of protectionism is it another 75 years from now in 2035? Then we ought to start talking about it to give our children a better future. The North must learn from Africa’s slavery and colonial error. The African leaders must put their acts together and put up patent offices which shall help create laws that will protect Africa Indigenous knowledge and its biodiversity.

Resources:

  1. Vandana Shiva. Biopiracy: The plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Green Books 1998.
  2. Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy, Report of the commission on intellectual Property Rights, London, September 2002.
  3. The Canadian group ETCGROUP

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