TRIPS: Rape of the century?
by Gina Mission

nother rape is in the making. In fact, the crime is already done, consummated beyond reasonable doubt, according to Masipag, a Laguna-based partnership of farmers and scientists who develop their own seed varieties for non-profit distribution to rural farmers. But unlike the rape of women and children which draws public anguish and legislated measures against it, only a few people are weeping.

___And the government may be party to it.

___It all started when the Philippine government became a signatory of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose agreement on TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is hotly contested by several countries. TRIPS covers several forms of intellectual property rights (IPR) such as patents, copyrights and trademarks.

___The TRIPS agreement requires ratification by the legislature by the year 2000, after which WTO member countries must enact IPR legislation on plant varieties. Once ratified, the TRIPS agreement will allow transnational corporations (TNCs) and scientists to obtain exclusive legal rights over seeds that local farmers are currently using, without any recognition of their rights.

___"Biopiracy," is how Masipag members describe it.

___Its critics say that TRIPS is extremely detrimental to developing countries like the Philippines. As it is, 70 per cent of the patents in the country are already owned by foreigners.

___Anti-TRIPS advocates say that opening the country’s life resources to foreign patents will merely serve to give outsiders, mostly TNCs from rich countries, broader ownership rights over the domestic economy than stimulate national innovation, research and development.

___The extent to which WTO-TRIPS will govern the legal status of biodiversity is extremely controversial. For the last 20 years, says Masipag executive director Emmanuel Yap, governments have been fighting over who should control genetic resources and who should benefit from them.

___The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is one of the most recent tools developed by the international community to try and reach agreement on this. According to Masipag, to some extent, CBD recognizes that indigenous and local communities have intrinsic rights to biodiversity and traditional knowledge which should therefore not be privatized for the benefit of a few alone.

___"CBD’s recognition of indigenous rights over biodiversity is very important because biopiracy is happening everywhere today, as corporations claim rights to what CBD is trying to protect," says Yap.

___But WTO and its TRIPS Agreement, complains Masipag, messes up the Convention. "It goes completely in the direction of legitimizing biopiracy on a global scale, sending any political or legal advance for the rights of local communities straight to the gutter," says the group in a statement.

___Masipag farmers and scientists allege that the TRIPS issue was forced by the US into the Uruguay Round agenda in 1988, claiming that American companies were losing $23 billion per year due to theft of their intellectual property rights. Their argument is that countries which don’t offer adequate IPR (for American products) or even allow counterfeiting are preventing legitimate trade (for American corporations).

___But that is not all. "The bigger scandal in TRIPS is that it will provide patent holders with ‘intellectual monopolies’ over biodiversity. And the great wealth of that biodiversity comes from the farms, fields and forests of developing countries of the South. The North has long been dependent and has profited from it. Now with sophisticated tools like genetic engineering, which allows scientists to move genes from one species to another, companies want to cash in on the ever increasing value of biodiversity," says Yap.

___TNCs, Yap continues, are investing massively in modern biotechnology hoping to generate new profits, particularly in the food and pharmaceutical sectors.

___Masipag reports that last year, RiceTec, Inc. of Texas was granted US patent #5663484 on Basmati rice, taken from India and Pakistan. The patent gives RiceTec a monopoly on Basmati. RiceTec also holds US Plant Variety Protection Certificate #9000075 and an international trademark on Jasmati rice - conjured as a cross between Thailand’s Jasmine rice and India/Pakistan’s Basmati.

___According to Masipag, among the string of highly controversial biopiracy cases which stand to benefit patent-holding corporations under the TRIPS agreement are turmeric, ayahuasca, and quinoa. These plants have been used by communities where they originated centuries before TNCs discovered them.

___In the Philippines, Yves Saint Laurent or YSL, an Italian outfit known in the fashion world for its brand of perfumes, has engaged a municipality in Negros Occidental in a contract growing scheme for Ilang Ilang. A native tree in the Philippines that bears sweet scented flowers, Ilang Ilang are usually beaded into necklaces along with the country’s national flower, Sampaguita. YSL now owns a patent to extract oil from the Ilang Ilang to be used in the production of a commercial perfume.

___According to Masipag, the local saluyot, sambong, banaba, lagundi, nata de coco and a host of many other endemic species of plants and animals, including human genes, have been or are in the process of being subjected to intellectual property protection through the WTO under the TRIPS Agreement.

___The "plant varieties clause" of the treaty will be reviewed by the WTO member-states this year. Many POs, NGOs, scientists and policy makers around the world want that clause trashed from the treaty. According to Masipag, the governments of India and Thailand - where farmer mobilizations are strong - and 50 African countries have expressed their determination to change the TRIPS agreement, since it goes against the interests of local communities and their sovereign rights over biodiversity.

___As the Masipag members say: "It is the rape of the century. It is the rape of the people’s sovereign right to choose, the people’s democratic right to consultation, the people’s inherent right to safe food."

___The National Biosafety Committee of the Philippines (NBCP), a multisectoral government body which approves or rejects applications for field testing of genetically-engineered seeds (GES) in the country, is due to decide on Monsanto Corporation’s application to field-test its GES within the year. If approved, the country will take the first entry of genetically modified corn when field-testing is conducted in Bai, Laguna and General Santos City.

___"Filipino farmers and consumers should have all the reasons to be wary. We have all the reasons to be wary," warns Masipag activists. And for a good reason. An NCBP member, who spoke with CyberDyaryo on condition of anonymity, reveals that while the committee is following the prescribed processes in screening the applications for field testing of genetically-altered plant varieties, the whole process is "moving forward inexorably towards field release and commercialization of mutant products."

___Adds the NCBP member: "Unless people express very strong opposition and make sure the government knows their feelings towards these issues, we will stand hopeless watching the rape of our diversity."

CyberDyaryo | 1999.03.18