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Biodiversity today, under the aegis of WTO, is threatened by biopiracy. "Biodiversity" in simple terms refers to all life forms, including plants, animals and micro-organisms, whether naturally occurring or modified, wild, cultivated or domesticated. It is the means of livelihood for the poor people and their source of basic needs for nutrition and health care.
India's health care is accounted for by the indigenous systems of medicines (Ayurveda, Unani etc) using 7500 species of plants.
Manufacturing in the decentralised, small scale, cottage industry sector providing livelihood to 70% people, depends on this biodiversity.
The local seed supply in the country comes from the farmers.
Biologists estimate that there are about 50 million species in existence. Two-thirds of these, have medicinal value; and they come from developing countries. They have been conserved and developed by the indigenous cultures in these countries for centuries. India, with rich tropical diversity, is today recognised for sheltering about two hundred thousand such species. Today the life forms in India are under threat of extinction due to a set of factors, of national or international origin. There is a steady and relentless march of commercial cultures, often promoted by foreign capital and technology, which respects neither the local biodiversity nor the people whose livelihood depends on it.
Let us now try to trace how the common people have steadily lost control over their own common natural resources. This has been going on for centuries. It is a story of continuous, ongoing exploitation. WTO and IPR have only added the last nail to the coffin.
Community control of common resources was a historical reality in pre-colonial India. Before the emergence of the modern State, the people had direct control over their resources. It was they who themselves took decisions vis-a-vis the biological resources. Tribal village communities and forest dwellers possessed occupancy rights (usufructuary rights referred to as "nistar" rights) over the land, forest pastures, water resources and its products.
With the advent of the British rule, traditional norms of community control of the commons began to be eroded. In colonial India the biological resources took on a new meaning, especially for the colonisers. These resources had a commercial value. The laws of the regime only protected the commercial interest of the colonizers --- the traditional rights of the common people were ignored. The Indian Forest Act (1927)eroded traditional management of forests by village communities and made commercial forestry the dominant pattern of use. Likewise, the Land Acquisition Act (1894) allowed the dominant power to usurp the lands of the less powerful.
In the present era of [World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and WTO] "liberalisation," the State's responsibility towards its people is being sold to the transnational corporations. This in effect transfers the sovereign power of decision-making on biodiversity to pockets outside the country. Instead of the State, leave aside the people, now it is the organizations of globalization that dictate what, how, where and why the biological resources are to be used. The market forces have been unleashed without appropriate checks and balances by the State. Thus the steady loss of control of the local people over their own resources is the rule.
The WTO and its IPR regime have now appeared as the new colonizers in the post-colonial era. The British rulers took forests away from the people through the Forest Act. The multinational corporations are using the WTO to take biodiversity away from the people through patents and Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). IPRs are rights to the products of the mind. By treating seeds, plants, genes, cells as human 'inventories', they are being patented, vide the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) of WTO.
A patent is an exclusive right to make, sell and distribute the patented product. Patents on biodiversity imply that corporations which own patents, get exclusive right to the production and distribution of seeds, livestock and medicine. This establishes monopolies on food and health, makes it illegal for farmers to save and exchange seed, and prevents decentralised, pluralistic economies for the production of food and medicine. It encourages "biopiracy" or theft of our indigenous knowledge. By the assertion of intellectual property rights, in the form of patents, multinational corporations usurp the country's biological and intellectual wealth without seeking permission from the communities who actually derived and developed this knowledge - this is biopiracy.
To conclude, common property resource management by indigenous self-governing communities based on democratic decentralisation and sustainable use of scarce resources has been our rich cultural tradition of preserving biodiversity since time immemorial. It was allowed to wither and die under the pressure of British colonisers. It is again threatened by the WTO. There have to be clear lines of demarcation. What is common community knowledge cannot be allowed to be a subject of patent in the garb of IPR. It is the urgent need of the hour to rejuvenate the traditional systems of community management. In order to counter biopiracy it is mandatory to forge a community movement, based on the idea of sovereignty of the community. Only such a step would restore power back to the people.
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