Corporations Claiming Our Commons

A number of global biotech corporations have emerged as “bioprospectors,” scouring the planet for biological resources much like 19th-century forty-niners combed the Sierra foothills for gold. They are enticed by potential profits and encouraged by a lax patent policy. In the ongoing “gene rush” companies and governments have acquired thousands of patents on the genetic materials of plants, animals, and even human beings. They hope these materials will yield agricultural, industrial, and medical advances as well as huge profits.

Unfortunately, this rush to patent the building blocks of life has resulted in widespread “biopiracy,” in which powerful corporations exploit the folk wisdom of indigenous peoples as well as our shared global commons, while providing little or nothing in return. For example, Western bioprospectors have patented plants and animals–many found only in developing nations–which local populations have used in agricultural and medical applications for centuries. In fact, scientists have gone so far as to patent genetic material from the collected blood, hair, and saliva of indigenous peoples in isolated societies. They expect these resources will lead to medical breakthroughs that will reap billions of dollars in profits for them and their employers. Meanwhile, the people who provided the resources are unlikely to benefit.

What’s worse, the biotech and pharmaceutical companies typically pay the poor nations where they find these genetic resources only paltry royalties or none at all. Yet their patents on these plants and animals may prevent the indigenous people from using the remedies they have relied upon for millennia to survive.

CTA seeks to educate policymakers and the public about bioprospecting and biopiracy. Using grassroots and legal actions, CTA will challenge the patenting of life and hopes to reclaim our shared global commons from profit-driven corporations.