High-Tech Piracy

From one-eyed swordsmen to scientists in rubber gloves, looters once again are seizing the earth’s riches

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This is part of a series of essays on bioprospecting and biopiracy. The other essays are: “Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?”; “Mapping the Territory”; “Pharmaceutical Giant Shares the Wealth”; “Transnationals With a Conscience”; and “Biodiversity Resources”. 

The brave new frontier of genetic engineering is extending humanity’s reach over the forces of nature as no other technology has ever done. Scientists can now isolate, snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, program, and produce biological and genetic material. In fact, scientists for the first time have the potential to become the architects of life itself, the authors of an ersatz technological evolution designed to create new species of microbes, plants, and animals that are more profitable for agriculture, industry, biomass energy production, and research than the ones nature gave us.

This biotechnology boom in the industrialized world has massively increased corporate demand for an unconventional form of natural resources: not the minerals and fossil fuels of the industrial age, but rather living materials found primarily in the Southern Hemisphere. According to the World Resources Institute, more than half the world’s plant and animal species live in the rainforests of the Third World—and nowhere else on earth. Ironically, as industrial expansion and pollution reduce the number of species, we are witnessing a “gene rush” as governments and multinational corporations aggressively scout the continents in search of genetic material.

“Bioprospecting” is a potential gold mine for both science and business, since genetic material found in the developing world may yield cures for diseases as well as cash. But what also looms on the horizon, and in fact is already occurring in many parts of the developing world, is “biopiracy,” where corporations use the folk wisdom of indigenous peoples to locate and understand the use of medicinal plants and then exploit them commercially. U.S. and European scientists hoping to find cures worth billions of dollars have even taken samples of the blood, hair, and saliva of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, their resources, and even their bodies are being pirated, and they receive little or nothing in return.

The Patenting of Life 

Modern-day biopiracy is not just the product of new science and corporate greed, but also of new law. The economic trigger for bioprospecting was provided by a little-known 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Diamond v. Chakrabarty. Its impact makes this unheralded court decision one of the most important judicial decisions of the 20th century. The case began in 1971 when Indian microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an employee of General Electric, developed bacteria that could digest oil. That same year, GE applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for a patent on Chakrabarty’s genetically engineered oil-eating bacteria. After several years of review, the PTO rejected the application under the traditional legal doctrine that life forms (“products of nature”) are not patentable.

The case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down its surprise opinion in June 1980. By a five-to-four margin the court ruled that the patent was to be granted. The highest court in the United States had decided that life was patentable, stating that the “relevant distinction [in patentability] is not between living and inanimate things, but whether living products could be seen as ‘human-made inventions.’”

Allowing a patent on a life form proved to be a slippery slope: In 1985 the PTO, on the basis of Chakrabarty, ruled that genetically engineered or altered plants are patentable. In 1987 the PTO extended patenting to all altered or engineered animals. Within a few years, microbes, plants, animals, human cells, cell lines, and genes were being patented.

The impact on the globalization of biotechnology has been profound. A corporation or government entity can expropriate a natural substance found in a Third World location, isolate valuable genetic material, patent it as the company’s property, and have a monopoly on commercial uses of the genetic product for approximately two decades. By a margin of one vote, the U.S. Supreme Court handed over the genetic commons of the earth to private ownership.

Biotechnology and new patent law have allowed companies to capitalize on even the smallest of life forms. The Merck pharmaceutical company has patented microbial samples from nine countries. These include soil bacteria from a heather forest on Mount Kilimanjaro, a Mexican soil fungus useful in the manufacturing of male hormones, a fungus found in Namibian soil of potential use in treating manic depression, a soil bacteria in India that serves as an antifungal agent, and a Venezuelan soil bacteria patented for use in the production of antibiotics.

Merck is not alone in its corporate ownership of microorganisms. Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb both have more bacteria and fungi holdings than Merck. Each year the drug industry spends billions searching the world’s soils for valuable microorganisms.

The biopirates are also on the lookout for profitable, patentable plants. In one remarkable example, several Northern corporations, including W.R. Grace, have been granted more than 50 U.S. patents on the neem tree of India—and not only on the tree, but also on the indigenous knowledge about its many uses.

In another act of biopiracy, two drugs derived from the rosy periwinkle—vincristine and vinblastine—earn $100 million annually for Eli Lilly. The plant is indigenous to the rainforest of Madagascar, and the country has received nothing in return.

Pharmaceuticals are among the most lucrative areas for the international biopirates: Some 25 percent of U.S. prescriptions are filled with drugs whose active ingredients are derived from plants. Sales of these plant-based drugs amounted to some $4.5 billion in 1980 and $15.5 billion in 1990. In Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States, the market value for both prescription and over-the-counter drugs based on plants is estimated to be in excess of $70 billion. Transnational companies know where to find the plants: Well over 50 percent of the world’s estimated 250,000 plant species are in tropical rainforests. Only a small fraction of them have been investigated as a source of potential new drugs, and the rapid destruction of tropical forests has hastened corporations’ screening, appropriation, and patenting processes.

The mounting intensity of the biopirates’ assault on Third World genetic resources can also be seen in the enormous pressures placed on governments by agricultural and drug companies to pass the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and other international trade structures, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, that cement the right of private actors to patent the resources and indigenous knowledge of the Third World. The result is an ever-increasing use of patenting and licensing agreements by transnational corporations to secure a monopoly over valuable genetic materials that can be developed into profitable drugs and energy sources.

The New Vampires 

The biopirates are interested not only in microbes and plants, but also in the very bodies of indigenous peoples. For decades the United States and other industrialized countries have been buying the blood of the poor in the Third World and selling it on the open market. Now scientists and researchers are racing to locate, identify, and find commercial uses for human genes from various indigenous populations. The search for valuable human genetic material is fueled by the fact that human genes and cells are now patentable. Relying on the Chakrabarty decision, over the past decade the U.S. Patent Office has allowed patents on human genes, cells, and cell lines. The lure of patent profits is leading a growing army of international gene hunters hoping to find potentially profitable genetic material to collect and analyze blood and other materials from Third World peoples. For example, in May 1989, researchers took blood samples from 24 people from the Hagahai people of Papua, New Guinea. The patent application describes the Hagahai as “a 260-member hunter-horticulturist group” that inhabits New Guinea’s Madang Province. A cell line developed from the Hagahai might be valuable in diagnosing adult leukemia and chronic degenerative neurologic disease. Another patent claim filed on behalf of the U.S. government involves a human cell line derived from a 40-year-old woman and a 58-year-old man, both of the Solomon Islands; this cell line, too, may be useful in diagnosing disease. In neither case were the people asked for their consent, nor were their traditions and values considered.

Despite the growing number of patents, biopirating the genetic material of indigenous peoples is only in early stages, and scientists are making plans for expansion. Starting in 1991, an informal consortium of scientists in North America and Europe launched a campaign to take blood, tissue, and hair samples from hundreds of “endangered” and unique human communities throughout the world. The initiative is called the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), and the samples it gathers will be used to create “transformed” cell lines of each community.

Many indigenous communities have condemned the HGDP. In February 1995, leaders representing indigenous nations throughout Canada, the United States, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina issued a statement opposing the HGDP and noting that it “opens the door for potential widespread abuse of human genetic materials for scientific, commercial, or military purposes. . . . The proposed research holds little or no benefit to the donor populations, but could be highly profitable to various researchers, patent holders, and corporations, which may find commercial application [from collected material] such as the production of pharmaceuticals.”

“This project is another form of the extremely racist process by which indigenous lands and resources have been pirated for the benefit of almost everyone except indigenous peoples,” says Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from British Columbia.


To reverse the rapidly increasing biopiracy that is sweeping the globe, it is imperative that the current regime of bioimperialism be replaced by international structures based on biodemocracy: recognition of the intrinsic value of all life forms and preservation of their genetic integrity. Biodemocracy recognizes the contributions and rights of source communities and requires that nation-states renounce the patenting of life and the international trade structures—such as GATT—that support patenting.

Biodemocracy also requires that there be an immediate moratorium on the genetic engineering of the permanent genetic code of plant and animal species. Until a sophisticated means of predicting the effects of gene alterations on the environment is established and adequate regulations are enacted, the genetic engineering must stop. Collection of cells and blood from indigenous peoples through projects that violate all legal principles of informed consent and represent a threat to their dignity and survival must end.

As people in the North struggle to halt biopiracy, the South must also stand behind the principles and policies of biodemocracy and refuse to allow its resources and its people to become commodities of the North.


Andrew Kimbrell is an attorney, activist, author, and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Technology Assessment, which examines the economic, ethical, social, environmental, and political impacts that result from the applications of technology.