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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Patents and GATT

To western corporations, GATT the revised global trade agreement heading for Congressional debate in mid-1994, means more protection of their “intellectual property rights” or inventions around the world. To millions of Indian farmers, GATT means intellectual piracy of their knowledge and agricultural knowhow by multinational corporations in the West. With virtually no reporting by the western media, massive demonstrations by farmers have been held in India during the past year against GATT’s new trade agreement. In October, half a million people gathered in Bangalore to voice their opposition. Many carried a twig or branch of the bountiful neem tree to symbolize their concerns.

Oh, if the neem tree could only talk. For centuries this spectacular blessing of nature has given Indians its wondrous gifts. Its chemical properties, through its seeds, leaves, flowers, bark, fruit, oil and wood, have been used for medicines, toiletries, birth control, fuel, feedstock, fertilizer, insecticides and on and on. So versatile is the neem tree that it has been called the “village pharmacy”, and, in sanskrit, “the curer of all aliments”.

Over the past 20 years, western and Japanese companies have started to take out patents on formulae for neem based solutions and emulsions. Then they approach Indian firms for joint ventures -¬≠the locals provide the raw materials and the foreign companies will commercialize, under monopoly patent protection, the “value added” products. Some local firms have refused to tie up neem products, have refused to commercialize the product in this manner. Others, however, have entered into joint ventures.

These developments have aroused Indian scientists, farmers and other active citizens against what they believe to be centuries of indigenous experimentation and decades of Indian scientific research applications. They reject the GATT patent section which holds that a synthetic form of a naturally occurring compound may be monopolized, especially since few Indians can afford the costly process of filing patents in various countries for knowledge they have possessed for many years in common with one another.

Beyond expense, however, they differ in principle over these western property rights, in particular with regards to patenting life forms. U.S. patent law, for example, can now extend to patenting. for 17 years of genetically engineered animals, plants and seeds. Indian farmers are protesting a trade agreement that would require them to pay Cargill or some other giant corporations royalties for every seed they plant.

They foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when a handful of companies holding patents will control the gates to raw materials, production processes and centuries old knowledge held as a common cultural heritage.

Prominent Indian scientists have been speaking up as well. Dr. V.P. Sharma, director of the Malaria Research Institute says: “We have discovered the repellent action of the neem oil. There is no question of anybody else in India or outside taking a priority or patent on this aspect of neem oil. I would like this discovery to be used as widely as possible to prevent nuisance from insect pests of public health importance and in the prevention of disease transmitted by them.”

Pressure is mounting on the Indian government not to approve this section of the proposed GATT agreement. If it does ratify this GATT, the government will have to depart from its present practice that disallows the patenting of life-forms.

Indian alliances of farmers and scientists reluctantly realize the very imperative of patent rights can require objectors to use the same tools for defensive purposes. Consequently, they have formed an alternative which they call “collective intellectual property rights.” These collective patents give rights to benefit commercially from traditional knowledge to the community that generated it. In this case the community for the neem tree would be its producers.

The grasp of patents is running amuck. People should not have to wait until the first patent on a bioengineered humanoid is granted by some country, before they alert themselves to what is going to be a grave ethical as well as a mercantile issue.