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Thai farmers are worried that after patenting Basmati rice, U.S. companies are next targeting Jasmine, a rice variety native to Thailand and on which millions of livelihoods depend. The origin of Jasmine rice is in the eastern part of the country. Jasmine rice grown in this area has a fragrance and is soft. About 100 years ago, Thai farmers developed the ancestors of this rice. After the Second World War and nearly two decades of testing, the government rice board officially released Jasmine -- Khao Dawk Mali in the vernacular.
This was in 1959, so we look at it as a pre-Green Revolution rice that foreign agencies like the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) had nothing to do with. It grows well in drought conditions and on saline soils, so it suits the farming conditions of north-east Thailand. By contrast, the IRRI's varieties are made to suit high-input chemical agriculture in irrigated lands, which poor people cannot afford.
Virtually all Thai Jasmine rice is produced by five million farmers in the Isan areas in the north-east. These are resource-poor farmers, whose monthly income does not exceed the poverty line of $200 per capita. Their livelihoods depend on Jasmine.
"No one could claim ownership or monopoly rights in relation to Jasmine rice. To patent Jasmine rice or to misuse its name is plundering from the poor."
Exports have been growing, which gives Isan farmers confidence in a brighter future. Normally, Thailand exports 4-5 million tons of rice per year. In 1997, Thailand exported 5.3 million tons and in 1998 the figure may be higher. Over 25% of the rice export is now Jasmine. Guangzhou province alone, in China, wants to purchase 4 million tones of Jasmine rice this year. There is also strong demand from Hong Kong, the Middle East, the U.S. and other places.
So truly, Thailand's future—and the future of the poor farmers in the north-east—will rely on sustainable management of the Jasmine rice sector and the Thai collective heritage.
The RiceTec patent on Basmati (a variety of rice native to and grown in a particular region of India and Pakistan) has become a serious concern in Thailand. Here is an American company claiming monopoly rights and getting huge benefits from India's and Pakistan's rice culture and giving nothing in return.
Here is an American company claiming monopoly rights and getting huge benefits from India's and Pakistan's rice culture and giving nothing in return.
RiceTec says their patent is not on India's Basmati but on "their own" Basmati which they claim to have "invented." This cannot be. Basmati is Basmati, whose qualities derive from the soil, the climate and the culture which produces it.
RiceTec's is fake Basmati. But the U.S. law lets RiceTec misuse other peoples' heritage.
Farmers' movements and people's organizations in Thailand fear the same will happen to them. RiceTec is marketing another proprietary rice called Jasmati, which has nothing to do with Jasmine or Basmati except for the name on the packaging.
RiceTec's Jasmati is derived from a variety called Della, developed in the U.S. Della is a selection from Bertone, which is from the Piedmont area of Italy.
However, RiceTec deceives the public and uses an Asian-sounding name which connotes quality to lure people into believing they are being offered a cross between Jasmine and Basmati.
To our knowledge, RiceTec and other U.S. companies marketing "their own versions" of the Thai Jasmine rice have not patented the germplasm, but are exercising their own claims to the name. This in itself is an offense. But they have also distorted the name to the direct disadvantage of Thai farmers.
We asked RiceTec why they market a rice called Jasmati if it is not derived from Jasmine or Basmati.
One of their breeders, Jim Strikey, responded that he considers Jasmine rice to be a term for "any aromatic, sticky rice" and Basmati a term for "any aromatic, long-grain, non-sticky rice." Strikey went on to say that Thailand should not bat an eye about this because, according to him, Thai farmers got rice from Madagascar in the first place. This is total ignorance of Asian rice culture.
What Thai farmer groups are worried about now is that the IRRI has used the original Khao Dawk Mali in so many crosses-nearly 1,500-and distributed the original seeds to over 20 countries where presently, or very soon, they might suffer the same fate as Basmati.
"Why should we give monopoly rights to a handful of plant breeders and nothing to the millions of farmers who developed and nurtured the materials these breeders rely on?"
The new World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on intellectual property rights, TRIPs, requires developing countries to set up monopoly rights legislation for plant varieties by the year 2000. If the EU (European Union) and WTO proposals are pushed through, it will soon be possible to patent Jasmine abroad. With the demand for this good rice skyrocketing, the hopes of Thai farmers are turning into worries.
RiceTec is attacking Basmati. Now it will be very easy to attack Jasmine…They can patent it like Basmati. If they find the gene for Jasmine's aroma, they can claim a monopoly on it just for identifying it!
Ten years ago, Thai NGOs discovered that Plao Noi, a local plant whose medicinal properties are inscribed in the ancient palm leaf herbalist books, was patented in Japan. It is a good medicine for ulcers and the Japanese extracted its active ingredient. Now, Kelnac-the patented product-has annual sales of 800 million baht ($20 million) for the sole benefit of Japan.
More recently, Thai television featured a chronicle about U.S. researchers patenting the Map-30 protein from a native Thai bittergourd. Thai scientists were also researching it for its anti-HIV compounds. Once again, Thais are being pushed out of a market for a medicine derived from the country's indigenous biodiversity.
Mr. Noo-porn Poomta, a 53-year-old organic rice farmer, says: "Someone who grows another variety in another environment should not claim it is Jasmine rice. We north-east farmers may not be able to put our logo stamped onto each rice grain, but we must maintain the standard of our produce and explain to the world how and why Thai Jasmine rice is genuine."
Mr. Poomta and over 500 other farming families in the region are eagerly developing sustainable and ecological systems to produce, mill and even export Jasmine rice. They are doing this with support from local NGOs, trying to avoid profit-hungry middlemen. But they feel their future is compromised by intellectual property laws. "No one could claim ownership or monopoly rights in relation to Jasmine rice. To patent Jasmine rice or to misuse its name is plundering from the poor. Anyone who would steal from poor Thai farmers is really shameless. Our basic rights are at stake," says Mr. Lai Lerngram, an organic farmer from Surin.
"Life cannot be reduced to a commodity"
That is the real issue. Thailand has been working to respond to its TRIPs obligations in a way that will not be unfair to the farmers, who after all make up 60% of the Thai people.
"Why should we give monopoly rights to a handful of plant breeders and nothing to the millions of farmers who developed and nurtured the materials these breeders rely on?" says Bamrung Kayotha, leader of Forum of the Poor (FOP), a huge mass movement of over 100 networks of people's organizations, farmers, laborers and other basic sectors throughout the country. Virtually all of Thailand's fruits, many of the dozens of rice varieties and most of the vegetables grown and appreciated today are farmers' selections. "We are absolutely opposed to patents on life. Breeders should not have seed monopolies. Farmers' rights must be recognized first. We are the original breeders," Mr. Kayotha says.
Hundreds of members of FOP camped outside the Prime Minister's office, demanding resolution of their problems. Jasmine is now high on their list of concerns related to the country's biodiversity. "We want the Chuan administration to work with other developing countries to have biodiversity removed from the WTO trade regime," says Day-cha Siripatra, an adviser to FOP. "Farmers exchange seeds freely and do selection on the farm. That is important to us. It is part of our culture. But when breeders exchange seed and do selection in the lab, they patent the results. This is obstructing the development of sustainable agriculture in our countries. That is why we will go to WTO and demand that our farmers' and community rights be respected."
Thai NGOs are launching a campaign to protect the future of Jasmine rice. In the words of Mr. Siripatra, "Patenting or monopolizing is possessive greed for only commercial interests. Life cannot be reduced to a commodity. If the EU adopts its directive to follow the USA and throw more weight behind the WTO-TRIPs agreement, it means the Europeans are going to sell their own culture just to compete with a rootless nation like the United States."
Witoon Lianchamroon and Piengporn Panutampon are with Biothai, the Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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