The Coalition Against Biopiracy is soliciting nominations for its 2006 Captain Hook Awards for the worst acts of biopiracy committed in the last few years. Biopiracy refers to the privatize seizure of genes, seeds and traditional knowledge developed by indigenous peoples and farming communities over the course of centuries. The customary tool for this private plunder is intellectual property law — patents, trademarks and copyrights.
In addition to the biannual Captain Hook Awards, a companion set of awards, the Cog Awards for Resistance (named after ‘cog’ ships designed to ward off pirates), celebrate exemplary acts of activism in fighting biopiracy. To submit a nomination, send a brief description of the case with supporting documentation to email@example.com, or make the nomination online at www.captainhookawards.org/nominations.
Here are some of my “favorite” awardees from years past:
Yang Mengjun of China was cited for “Worst Nanopiracy” for securing 466 patents on nanoscale versions of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs. What Mr. Yang did was convert traditional plants into fine powders (with particles under 100 nanometers), which made him eligible to claim the substances as new inventions having “increased solubility and bioavailability.” As a result, Yang now has monopoly patents on barks, roots, fruit, and leaves that have been used in Chinese medicine since ancient times.
“Nanotechnology” refers to the manipulation of matter at the level of atoms and molecules, which are of course the building blocks of the entire natural world. Patents on nanotech “inventions” offer entirely new opportunities for monopoly control over the basic components of nature itself. With the rise of nanoscale technology we are seeing far-reaching patent claims not just on DNA, but on the atoms and molecules that make up DNA. Yang appears to be the largest single holder of nanopatents in the world.
Another act of cultural vandalism occurred when the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property granted the exclusive right to use the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe for 2,400 Mexican pesos. The Virgin’s image was used on a Chinese company’s products (toys, games, and Christmas tree ornaments) for 10 years. The deal also granted licensing rights and an option to renew the trademark.
Of course, the Virgin of Guadalupe is Mexico’s most beloved patron saint, and for many indigenous cultures in Mexico she is equated with Tonantzin — the goddess of fertility and Mother Earth. The Coalition Against Biopiracy noted: “Earlier this year, the Basilica of Guadalupe drafted a much more lucrative deal that would have given Viotran, LLC a trademark on the image of the Virgin. Viotran was willing to pay $12.5 million dollars for exclusive rights to the Virgin’s image, but the deal fell through amidst an uproar by Mexican Catholics.”
The Coalition is also eager to celebrate those “who have fought bravely and successfully to defend the commons.” Hence its Cog Awards.
In 2004, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was cited as “Best Advocate” for his work in defending farmers’ rights and “speaking out against bioserfdom.” When genetically modified canola seeds made by Monsanto blew onto his fields, Monsanto sued Schmeiser for re-using patented seeds without signing a licensing agreement. Schmeiser refused to pay royalties or settle with Monsanto even though two Canadian courts found that he was guilty of infringing Monsanto’s patent. The case, now before the Canadian Supreme Court, will determine whether farmers will be forced to pay royalties on GM seeds found on their land, even if they didn’t buy the seeds or seek to benefit from them by using proprietary companion chemicals.
You can check out the 2004 Captain Hook Award Winners here, and the 2004 Cog Awards for Resistance here. The Coalition Against Biopiracy is a joint project of the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network (IPBN), the South East Asia Regional Initiatives in Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and The ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration. The Awards will be presented at the 2006 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will occur from March 20 to 31 in Curitiba, Brazil.