Creating Knowledge

February 08, 1994|By S. M. MOHAMED IDRIS

Penang, Malaysia. -- Through the patenting of seeds and other biological materials, the rich countries are trying to impose upon the local communities of the Third World a new kind of colonialism.

Unlike the colonialism of the past, this new colonialism is more subtle, more invisible and therefore more dangerous. The rich countries and their corporations have already taken most of the Third World's natural resources, minerals, trees and soils as raw materials for their industries. Now that these resources are almost gone, they want to take away the Third World's rich and diverse biological materials, seeds and genetic resources.

They are trying to do this by defining to their own advantage what is the meaning of ''knowledge.'' They are saying that the knowledge of Third World farmers and communities to grow food, to live in harmony with nature and with one another, does not count as knowledge. They say it is not knowledge because this is what has developed ''naturally'' and so no one is responsible for it and no one should be rewarded for it.

On the other hand, if a company in the rich countries were to ''invent'' something in a laboratory, then this is taken to be the creation of ''new knowledge'' and the company must be rewarded with a patent. Having this patent means that no one else can make use of the company's product, unless they pay a higher price to that company, this price being higher because of the monopoly enjoyed by the company because of the patent protection granted to it.

This double standard of what is the meaning of knowledge and who should be rewarded, and who will lose out, is most clearly seen in the case of agriculture and genetic materials. When Third World farmers through thousands of years evolve and develop sophisticated and scientific ways of producing food, with such a diverse range of seeds, and without harming the environment, this was not considered scientific agriculture but was instead looked down upon as primitive.

The so-called Green Revolution, which is not green at all, wiped out a huge range of farmers' seeds, while making profits for the big companies. Having realized that these seeds are after all very important, the companies are taking them, even stealing them from Third World farmers.

In the laboratory they alter the seeds through biotechnology. The modification may often be slight, just so as to meet the legal requirement that they must invent something ''new'' to get a patent. The gene taken from a good plant variety evolved by generations of farmers, is inserted into another seed, and as if by magic the seed with the good gene now belongs to the company.

Now we are entering a new and dangerous phase. Through the Uruguay Round tariff negotiations, the Northern governments want Third World governments to accept a new intellectual-property-rights law. This will require Third World countries to allow for ''intellectual protection'' of the seeds belonging to companies through patenting or some other form of intellectual protection.

The whole affair is very devious. It is the basis for the new genetic colonialism which will be even worse than the old-type colonialism. Through a use of double standards in language, Third World farmers' deep knowledge of seeds and sustainable agriculture is cast aside as ''folklore'' or ''naturally occurring.'' The companies' manipulation of genes is worshiped as ''scientific invention'' and rewarded with a patent. The farmer who evolved and used the seed is forced to buy back the seed. It is like the robber entering your house and taking away your possessions, and then the same robber charging you in court for theft.

It is now time to turn around the language that they are using to dominate us. The traditional agricultural practices of Third World farmers are not ''folklore'' and ''naturally occurring,'' but the result of sophisticated science which embodies deep ecological and agricultural knowledge. The Green Revolution is not green but environmentally destructive. The new biotechnologies are not a savior but the channel for greater ecological catastrophe as well as for devastating the livelihoods and food supplies of Third World farmers.

The companies are not ''inventing'' new seeds and creating ''intellectual property.'' Rather, they commit ''intellectual piracy.'' They are given ''patent protection'' to protect what is morally indefensible, the theft of farmers' seeds. Third World governments must oppose the intellectual-property-rights agreement contained in the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The great teacher and fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi was an outstanding example of someone who could see through the lies behind the ideological rhetoric of the apologists for colonialism. When the fine words of the ''law'' as set down by the colonialists produced injustice, Gandhi defied the law and organized the great masses of people. When a ''law'' prohibited Indians from making salt, reserving a monopoly to the British, Gandhi recognized the absurd symptom of exploitation by colonial powers, and he organized the Dundee March.

Today the big companies of the rich countries claim a monopoly over seeds and genetic materials. This is again an absurd symptom of the continuing exploitation of the big powers over the weaker countries.

S. M. Mohamed Idris is coordinator of the Third World Network.

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