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June 24/2006
1:25 AM

GENETICALLY MODIFIED COLONIALISM

"There is enough in this world for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed."
—Mahatma Gandhi

It is revealing that Columbus sailed to the West Indies in 1492, and upon docking, pronounced himself discoverer of an unknown world—while natives all around him curiously checked out the situation.

This was not an anomaly.

Over two hundred and fifty years later, Captain James Cook, to name one of dozens of explorers, did the same thing upon his 'discovery' of what is now Hawaii—as well-tanned permanent residents looked on, wondering what to make of this shallow-breathing man with white skin.

Even put in historical or biological or anthropological terms, I find this superiority thing so weird, given our relatively large brains and ability to comprehend (the) pain (of others). Who are we? And why do we think like this? And why do we defend it?

Rest assured none of those questions will be answered in this essay.

This irony, though—the prolonged inability to see hundreds of people when they're standing right in front of you—has of course been talked about for some time. But perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that the world (including me) doesn't find this oversight absolutely, unequivocally, gut-bustingly, ridiculously mind-blowing.

It would be as if a white man running in a hundred meter race came eighth behind seven people of different colour yet was awarded first place—and no one (not you or I or the cheering crowd) noticed the incongruity (except, of course, the seven runners of different colour who noticed right away).

Not even the ultimate white supremacist Adolph Hitler could deny the legendary African American Jesse Owens the gold medal he won in 1936—in Germany, no less. Why? Because Mr Owens came first, and everybody saw it.

Now if the reason behind Columbus' oversight of, say, ten million permanent residents was not because of glaucoma but because the natives were immediately considered sub-human, the whole premise becomes even more absurd—and embarrassing.

This would mean sub-humans out-discovered all of these European explorers by thousands of people and hundreds of years. How humiliating. And the new arrivals—Columbus, Cook, Cartier, Cabot et al.—never even bothered to ask any of these natives how they got there in the first place. In the projected blinding glow of Crown and Christ, these scantily clad people ceased to exist (which in some cases became literally true).

With Intellectual Property Rights, could the same instincts of the Europeans of 1492, 1778, the Scramble For Africa beginning in the mid 1800s (not to mention slavery), and so on, be (like the AIDS virus) alive and well, and on the march—gentle folk be damned?1

Companies, since the 1980s, if anything the news says is correct, are regularly claiming 'discovery' of the very building blocks of life—our DNA—despite its reported presence on earth for something like 4 billion years, and self-awareness for at least 200,000 years as the workings of anatomically modern humans.

In other words, parts of our own gene pool may well be or soon become somebody else's private property. Right in line with these 'discoveries' of the human blocks of life are the 'discoveries' of seeds and plants, despite their use by indigenous horticulturists for hundreds or even thousands of years. Not patented, not owned, just developed, shared and used to sustain that soon-to-be-patented thing called existence.

Like so many things in 2006—for example the neglected insanity in the Congo, the unimaginable number of nuclear warheads everywhere, the strapping of bombs to the body to make a political statement by killing children, the expansion of war into space and so on—the claiming of intellectual property rights over life itself seems more like the work of some comic book villain than business as usual.

Apparently Lex Luther lives. It's as if this aspect of human nature—the instinct for control and domination—will find a way to exert itself even if it has to dress up in fine print and look pretty to do so. And century after century, all the same sort of smart, diginified people, will support its arrival and lobby and pontificate for its survival.

And century after century the same group of mostly lower yet mixed income riff-raff will rail against it (that's me this lifetime).

I guess this is part of what we call progress. I'm serious when I say that. I only wish the fight was a little more fair.

So what does this mean, you ask, for toi and moi? I actually have no idea (although history gives some clues). My understanding of intellectual property rights is fragmented. This makes sense, seeing that the word intangible is actually applied in its standard definition. Take Wikipedia:

"In law, Intellectual Property is an umbrella term for various legal entitlements which attach to certain types of information, ideas and other intangibles in their expressed form."

Instinctively, I just don't believe the term intangibles has an intention meaning anything reminiscent of just looking out for the little fella or don't worry, pal, this is not about profit. I would place what little money I have on intangible meaning: can be made tangible by whoever can afford the most expensive lawyers.

For a deeper yet still incomplete picture, look up Canada's very own Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan farmer who fought against Genetically Modified Reality and lost everything to the food giant Monsanto (also worth looking up).

Look up Indian activist Vandana Shiva who fights against the WTO/TRIPS right to claim ownership of biodiversity (that miraculously formed web of interdependency known as nature, including water). Or read about biopiracy, which is a loaded but instructive term.

There is irony, of course, in how much I enjoy certain benefits of, if not Intellectual Property exactly, long term corporate Research and Development. An effective appendix operation or a nifty laptop computer would be two of countless examples.

At the same time it must be remembered that these 'discoveries' did not arise in a sudden Eureka! moment, but were built on the back, brains and brilliance of our collective ancestors' exploration. Not only that, huge amounts of private company Research and Development is and has for decades been publicly subsidized by the tax-payer (with no public return on profit).

In sum, I can say this: having written so much about the colonization of Africa in the past year—and conscious of its indirect continuation in Africa to this day—digging into certain aspects of Intellectual Property Rights left me, well, sad. And maybe a little depressed at the hectic pace of not being able to do anything. I would have preferred anger, maybe, but my feelings about it are actually rather intangible (in this case intangible probably means vague enough to not realize my balls are owned by a large, cold conglomerate). And just when I thought insane Muslim extremists who actually believe their own hate-filled diatribes were my only problem!

But if you are by nature uncomfortable being patented and owned, however subtly, I beg you to make some noise—with angry love. At least go down yelling, because the 'Scramble For Africa' may well be resurrecting itself as the much more personal Scramble for Angela, or Archie, or me or you.

If so, is there no end to the desire of some people to own everything? I guess that's part of the human instinct that manifested itself as colonialism. Still, who would have thought money, lawyers, lobbyists and a good suit could disguise this new colonialism so attractively?

And so hush-hush, too.

It's strange how these agreements happen, and all I feel is a subtle futility—barely even the energy to write about them. But we must write, question, debate, protest and love more, for I'm sure there was a time when the American Indians felt nearly nothing, too, with the arrival of a few seemingly innocuous, shallow-breathing, pale-skinned beings on the shores of their homeland.

 

 

Footnotes:

(1) This passage is from Philippe Sands' enlightening book Lawless World. Sands' father Alan just happened to be best man at my parents' (now divorced) wedding:

"A second new agreement [after GATT—General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade] addressed trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPs), and was designed to promote the protection of national and international intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, etc.) and integrate them fully into free trade rules. The agreement was intended to end international trade in pharmaceutical products and drugs that do not comply with intellectual property laws, on the basis that a failure to comply with such rules would cause harm to legitimate commercial activities and undermine initiative and creativity.

The TRIPs Agreement has already given rise to controversy, when pharmaceutical companies relied on it to try to stop South Africa from providing low cost, generic treatment against HIV and AIDS.

However, following an outcry in April 2001, thirty-nine drug companies dropped a lawsuit to prevent South Africa's 1997 Medicines Act from being enforced, allowing the use of affordable, generic medicines.

The impact of the TRIPs Agreement on increasing poorer communities' access to drugs continues to be controversial.

This is all the more so after a British government-sponsored Commission on Intellectual Property Rights concluded that IP rights hardly played any role at all in stimulating research and development into tropical diseases in the developing world, which was said to be the rationale for applying intellectual property rules in the first place."

 

 

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack