Biopiracy and International Development

When most of us combine thoughts of international development and intellectual property theft, we tend to think of factories in Asia churning out bootleg copies of Hollywood blockbusters, of knock off handbags and watches, or of tech savvy twenty-something’s using torrent sites to download pirated copies of software.

Yet, there’s another form of intellectual property theft that is less about the developing world usurping patent laws of the developed world and more about the developed world trampling on the rights and knowledge of those of the developing world.

Biopiracy is the commercial development of naturally occurring biological materials such as plant materials, by outside countries or organizations (such as pharmaceutical companies) without fair compensation to the peoples (often farmers or indigenous peoples) or nations who helped to develop said technology in the first place. It’s a rampant practice as – the farmers, indigenous people, and poorer nations – are often not in a position to assert their legal rights. In some cases, the people may not even know that they had their technology stolen.

Yet this unwillingness to pay proper intellectual property rights is problematic. Of the roughly 25 biodiversity hotspots – i.e. sources for these materials – roughly 4/5th are located in the global south. This unwillingness to pay the piper steals from nations that can desperately use the money to fund programs such as comprehensive education and healthcare which get slashed under IMF restructuring agreements, or to pay back debts. Secondly, by not being willing to pay these countries for the technologies that emerge from these diverse regions, they reduce the impetus for these countries to protect their biodiverse regions – why protect this area for someone else’s benefit?

It is not any wonder then, that the October 21st Christian Science Monitor Reports that at the Conference of the Parties (COP-10) on halting the global loss of biodiversity currently underway in Nagoya, Japan the longstanding disagreements between rich and poor countries over how to split the economic benefits of those species became a sticking point. The article details how developing countries are pushing for tight regulations, while developed countries such as Japan and Canada are pushing for laxer rules out of fear that the former will stymie ingenuity. Indigenous peoples whose technologies are often the ones being poached are pushing for representation as they say their own governments often fail to consider their needs. How these different interests are balanced are intimately connected to the balance that biodiversity itself requires to create a habitable planet.