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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

Community Rights, People’s Sovereignty and
Treaties to Reclaim the Genetic and Water Commons

by Dr. Vandana Shiva, Director,
Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre has emerged as a celebration of democracy and people’s sovereignty. The forum is organized by the regional government of the southern Brazilian State of Rio Grande do Sul, NGOs and social movements, and signals a different relationship between the government and citizens than the one engendered by globalization. It was therefore the appropriate forum for launching two initiatives, one to reclaim the water commons the other to reclaim the genetic commons.

Institutions such as the WTO and World Bank, and the agreements and programs such as TRIPs (trade-related intellectual property rights), GATS and structural adjustments that they impose on governments destroy the multilayered functions of government. They centralize power and ownership over resources in the hands of states. Sovereignty is articulated through the principle of eminent domain. This is undermining constitutions, federal structures of power, and people’s rights.

Resisting the privatization of biodiversity through intellectual property rights and the privatization of water through structural adjustment programs and services trade, needs a combination of strategies at local, national and global levels and a shift in the constellation of the power and rights of states, corporations and citizens.

Privatization based on exclusive rights of corporations to vital resources like biodiversity and water is an enclosure of the commons. Reversal of this enclosure requires a recovery of the commons through a combination of actions.

Privatization based on exclusive rights of corporations to vital resources like biodiversity and water is an enclosure of the commons.

1. At the local level, the recovery of the commons needs the strengthening and assertion of local community rights and people’s sovereign and natural rights to vital resources such as water and biodiversity.

2. At the national level, the recovery of the commons requires a reinvention of sovereignty, and a shift from the state functioning on the doctrine of eminent domain to states functioning on the public trust doctrine.

3. At the global level, the recovery of the commons requires a movement of people to keep water and biodiversity beyond monopoly, ownership and commodification, which in turn prevents patenting of life forms and privatization of water. This is where the treaties to reclaim the genetic commons and water commons launched at Porto Alegre have a role. They become the source of popular democratic pressure to implement the review of TRIPs in which countries of the South are calling for an exclusion of life forms from patentability.

These treaties will have democratic power and substance to the extent they strengthen local community rights at the global level. Global commons not based on local commons is an ecologically and democratically fraudulent category. The global commons is merely a recognition and reinforcement of local community rights. It is not the level at which rights are exercised or assigned.

Since sovereignty based on the doctrine of eminent domain is becoming the conduit for global usurpation of people’s resources and undermining of people’s sovereign rights, reclaiming the biodiversity and water commons must go hand in hand with reclaiming sovereignty and defining a new partnership between people and governments on the basis of subsidiarity and the public trust doctrine.

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