A record 1200 turned up for the International Seminar on Biodiversity
Law held in the auditorium of the Superior Court in Brasilia 11 to 14 May,
1999. The seminar was organised jointly by the President of the Centre for
Judiciary Studies, Antonio de Padua Riberio, and the Director of the
General Coordinating Office of Federal Justice, Fontes De Alencar, who is
also the regional judge of Rio Grande do Sul, and was opened by the
vice-President of the Republic. The participants included a large number
of distinguished federal and state judges. Others present were indigenous
peoples leaders, civil servants, politicians, activists, students,
scientists and staff of foreign embassies. The organizers had expected 50
to 100. Instead, the auditorium of 800 capacity was filled, and an
overflow audience sat outside the hall with televised coverage. Gisela De
Alencar, legal consultant on environmental law to the House of
Representatives, and one of the organisers of the event, was "astonished
and delighted" at the large turnout.
The most topical area of discussion was biotechnology, especially the
new patents on seeds, biopiracy and biosafety. The seminar happened to
coincide with a series of battles over field trials and commercial
approval of Monsantos transgenic soya by the heavily pro-biotech
National Technical Committee on Biosafety. The Brazilian Academy of
Science had advised the Biosafety Committee that it was dissatisfied with
Monsantos data, but was ignored. This has pitched state governments
against the federal government, and different departments of the federl
government find themselves in opposition. A consortium consisting of the
federal Environment Protection Agency, Greenpeace and the Consumer Defence
institute are locked in a legal battle against the partnership of Monsanto
and the National Biosafety Committee. The federal court has decided to
approve Monsantos transgenic soya for commercial release, but
requires Monsanto to segregate and label the produce. Monsanto is trying
to overturn this requirement with the help of the National Biosafety
Committee. Feelings are running very high over the issues.
The State of Rio Grande do Sul has led the revolt by banning Monsantos
transgenic soya from being planted. Just before the seminar, all 27 states
of the Republic voted unanimously for a moratorium until environmental
impact studies have been done. Jurist Paulo Affonso Leme Machado,
President of the Brazilian Society of Environmental Law said, "it is
incumbent on the federal government to prove its action [of approving
Monsantos transgenic soya] is not harmful to the environment. The
federal government must abide by the decision of the states to require
environmental impact studies before approving commercial release."
According to David Hathaway, an economist of the Consultancy and
Services in Agricultural Projects and Techniques, Monsanto has bought up
60% of all the seed companies in Brazil in just two years. It now has some
700 undisclosed test sites for transgenic crops. This has incensed
indigenous farmers all over the country, both because of the threat of
seed monopoly and the adverse impacts on biodiversity.
Mae-Wan Ho, biologist from the Open University, UK, and scientific
adviser to the Third World Network, exposed the myth that transgenic
agriculture is needed to feed the world. "The tightening of corporate
monopoly on food on account of patents on seeds is going to cause famine.
It also diverts us from implementing the sustainable, organic agriculture
that can truly guarantee food security and improvement of health for all."
She also reviewed the scientific evidence pointing to the dangers of a
technology "that has the potential to destroy all life on earth",
especially when it I being driven by a discredited, reductionist science
that has little or no contact with reality.
Biopiracy is another burning issue. Gurdial Nijar, legal consultant of
the Third World Network, pointed out that "indigenous knowledge has
fed, clothed and healed the world for millenia". The concept of
patenting and owning life is antithetical to all cultures in the Third
World. Furthermore, it denies the "cumulative innovative genius"
of farmers over the generations. Marina Silva, Senator of the Federal
Government and champion of indigenous rights,spoke passionately of the
need to protect local communities and the inextricable link between human
and natural biodiversity, adding a plea to western scientists to work
together with the deeply reliable indigenous knowledge that has been
tested for millenia and tens of millenia, and for "innovative
legislation" to make this possible. All that was reinforced by Clovis
Wapixana, Amazonian Indian leader, "It is the deep knowledge of
plants and animals possessed by the Amazonian Indians which alone can
sustain natural biodiversity." One big problem is the expropriation
of land by the corporations. Predatory fishing, logging and poisoning of
rivers by prospectors happen on a daily basis, but the Governmet has not
intervened. Now to top the insult and injury, bioprospectors are
expropriating their knowledge.
A notorius case involves ethnobotonist Conrad Gorinsky of Oxford
University, UK, who has taken and patened the extracts of two plants from
the North of Brazil: bibiru (used as contraceptive) and cunani
(used as anaesthetic and fish poison). Asked by journalist Mario Cesar
Carvalho whether he knew he was contravening the Convention of Biological
Diversity which stipulates that there should be equitable benefit sharing,
Gorinsky is reported to have laughed and said, "Why should I share
royalties with Brazilians?" Even more scandalous is the fact that a
US company, Coyll Cell Repositories, lists Amazonian Indian blood cells in
a DNA kit for sale at $500, which is openly advertised on the internet.
Actually, biopiracy is not new. Adalberto Carim Antonio, Judge of the
State of Amazonas, poinits out that 70 000 seeds were taken by Harry
Wickham on behalf of the Kew Gardens in Britain. Wickham was subsequently
knighted for his efforts, but this act plunged the state of Amazonas into
poverty for 50 years.
Dr. Mauro Carneiro, eminent molecular biologist and Chief Coordinator of
all the biotechnology research in the Government Research Institutes of
South American Countries, is firmly opposed to the new patents on life,
and to the commercialisation of science. Actually, the current patenting
of genes and cell lines is also denying the cumulative innovative genius
of generations of western scientists who have contributed selflessly to
the intellectual commons for the public good.
When is the Brazilian Government going to register indigenous knowledge
to prevent patenting? Is the mere act of registering indigenous knowledge
going to encourage biopiracy. There is no control over tourists stealing
seeds or rare species of animals being exported.
More than seventy scientists (figure to date is 327 scientists from
39 countries) have issued a statement calling on all Governments to
imposed a moratorium on global releases of transgenic crops and to ban
patents on living organisms, cell lines and genes.