Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Vandana Shiva's Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge,

by Laura Winton, Left Green Network

Vandana Shiva's Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, South End Press, 1996, 148 pp., Paper, $13.50. In 1992, activists around the country raised their voices to prevent the glorification of Columbus on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish invasion of the Americas. Today piracy on the intellectual level replaces the piracy of land and leads to environmental scarcity and civil unrest, particularly in developing countries.

These are the issues discussed in Vandana Shiva's Biopiracy. The book covers issues ranging from genetic engineering, ecofeminism, the autonomous rights of communities and ecosystems, and the impact of so-called intellectual property and trade policies. From a Green perspective, which recognizes the interrelatedness of issues regarding environmentalism, economics, gender, etc., this book takes some specific issues and illustrates the scope of their effects.

Rather than seeing nature as self-balancing and as having integrity of its own, corporations and many scientists view it as a source of raw materials for the creation of manufactured materials. For example, the "ownership" of nature, as well as of knowledge, is an overarching theme in this book. Treaties such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) define rights of ownership as intellectual property rights (IPRs) belonging to individuals and corporations. Did you know that a doctor who treats you for cancer can patent and own your cancer cells? Or that a corporation employing a scientist who genetically alters a species, not only owns the result of his or her research, but also the subsequent generations of that altered species? And that a farmer who buys hybrid seeds cannot use the next generation of seeds for planting without paying a royalty to the company.

Agronomic dependence also results as synthetic plants replace natural ones. Regional varieties of plants are lost, along with their ability to regenerate themselves. And, as Shiva points out, those regional varieties carry with them immunity to local pests and weather conditions. She cites several examples of hybrid crops that promised increased yields to farmers. What happened instead were insect infestations or environmental conditions that wiped out the year's crop, actually resulting in scarcity. Left to themselves, ecosystems are self-organizing, evolving to accommodate, and when necessary, protect themselves from changes. Genetically-engineered life forms introduced into ecosystems can have unforeseen effects and throw off the local ecosystem's ability to bring itself back into balance.

Ms. Shiva also points to the human cost of intellectual property rights and scientific discovery. With their emphasis on individual ownership of ideas and innovation, IPRs discourage community-based solutions. In many cultures, knowledge and resources are shared among neighbors. The privatization of communal knowledge allows imperialistic-minded scientists and corporations to steal such knowledge and patent it for their own use and profit at the expense of those who developed or discovered it. In this way, IPRs discourage people from working together in ecological, medical, or scientific discovery, instead reducing human endeavor to profit and greed.

To make matters worse, international trade treaties penalize countries that do not open their trade doors and their "traditional" knowledge to multinational corporate pirates, thus further weakening the sovereignty and self-organizing power of developing nations and local communities.

Finally, the privatization of discovery leads to social unrest. In a climate of competition, neighbors no longer see commonalities among themselves, and no longer see the need to work together. When ecosystems are disrupted and scarcity results, people start looking for scapegoats. Ms. Shiva traces the roots of unrest in Somalia and Rwanda to agricultural policies imposed on those countries by the so-called Green Revolution, exported from Western countries and corporations in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, this book is not without its problems, many of which could have been worked out with tighter editing. First, I put the book down never wanting to hear the word "diversity" again. In an effort to tie human and cultural diversity to the integrity of indigenous ecosystems, the word is way overused. The first two chapters are dense with jargon and terminology that are not always explained, or may be explained several pages or several chapters after it is introduced. At times, the author appears to assume that the reader has a high level of scientific and/or political knowledge. In subsequent chapters, thankfully, terms are more clearly defined and the writing (and consequently the readability of the book) becomes much smoother.

In fact, there seem to be two different books. The first two chapters offer a highly technical discussion of genetic engineering and intellectual property rights. Starting with chapter three, the book becomes a lively discussion on the political background and implications of this "biopiracy."

This book would have been stronger by an editor who could take Ms. Shiva's extensive scientific knowledge and translate it into lively text more easily accessible to readers. There are only 126 pages of actual text. Even another 25-50 pages to provide more background and explanation would still leave this a short book, and would make it an infinitely easier read. There is some very interesting and important information in this book that might be lost to readers who aren't willing to plow through the difficult chapters.

Which brings me, finally, to a more general complaint. South End Press lists as its mission to "provide an alternative to the products of corporate publishing." I would like to see publishers like South End Press and authors of books such as this write and edit their work into something that any intelligent reader could pick up at a book store and understand. This information is too important to keep circulating it among ourselves, while politicians, medical researchers, and seed companies' corporate spin doctors explain away the virtues of organized piracy through treaties like GATT, and the destruction of local economies, communities, and ecosystems in the name of commerce and progress.

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