“My idea of a better-ordered world is one in which medical discoveries would be free of patents and there would be no profiteering from life or death” – Indira Gandhi, 1981
India, where I come from, has been on the front line of the World Trade Organisation’s rules. Along with all other developing countries, it has been systematically plundered and penalised in the name of free trade. Its poor have been treated with contempt and its government has been bullied.
The trade-related intellectual property rights (Trips) agreement is the most far-reaching of all the WTO agreements and threatens to hurt us most. It has changed the law related to patents, copyright, design and trademarks from national to global levels and redefined vital issues of farmers’ rights to seeds and citizens’ rights to medicine as trade issues. It has also expanded patentability to cover life forms, even though living organisms are not invention. For the US, which forced the changes through, these were matters of commerce. For us, intellectual property rights are matters of national sovereignty and basic needs.
We are also fighting the piracy of third-world knowledge. Biopiracy – where a corporation patents lifeforms or processes and claims that they are its own “inventions” – is costing the developing world $60bn every year.
We have fought successfully against unethical patents on the neem tree and basmati rice, and are now preparing a challenge against a proposed Monsanto patent that makes claims on wheat plants and all products derived from them. It is based on an Indian wheat variety.
Besides robbing the south of its creativity and innovation, biopiracy patents rob third-world farmers, tribal groups and healers of their rightful market share and incomes. Patents and intellectual property rights put new burdens on the poor to generate profits for seed corporations and pharmaceutical corporations, which are increasingly becoming the same corporations.
Patents also transform the fundamental right of farmers to exchange seed into a crime, as seed now becomes the “intellectual property” of corporations. In extreme situations corporations can now even claim royalties for crops that have been contaminated or polluted by their GM seeds.
Seed patents threaten the very survival and freedom of peasants of the South and farmers in the North. With Trips, a framework is in place that allows the seed industry to force all farmers of all crops to buy seed every year instead of saving and reproducing seed. We argue that the Trips agreement militates against people’s human right to food and health by conferring unrestricted monopoly rights to corporations in the vital sectors of health and agriculture. A recent decision on a plant patent infringement suit has set a new precedent for interpreting plant patent coverage in the US – it was ruled that a plant patent can be infringed by a plant that merely has similar characteristics to the patented plant. This could be be disastrous for countries from where the biodiversity that gave rise to those properties was first taken.
Patents on medicine are similarly becoming life threatening to those suffering from illnesses and epidemics like malaria, TB and HIV/Aids. The Aids epidemic has made evident the fact that the cost of health care and drugs is becoming prohibitive throughout the world as a result of implementing US-style patent regimes. Even if the UN Aids initiative subsidised the price of anti-Aids drugs by 85%, the cost would be approximately $2,250 per year – way out of the reach of the poor. The same medicine is produced by an Indian company, Cipla, for only $350. However, under Trips, by 2005 India will be forced to introduce product patents, and low-cost drugs from India that have saved millions of lives will no longer be available. Countries reclaim their sovereign rights to provide affordable essential medicines to all their citizens.
At Cancun, the US will try to push aside the tricky issues of Trips, seeds and biodiversity. Europe, too, will try and reduce the Trips negotiations to geographical indicators for wines and cheese. It will once again be up to citizens of the world and developing countries’ governments to to undo the inhuman wrongs and unjust order that the biotech and pharmaceuticals giants are imposing on the people of the world. It is time to put life above profits.