Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Knowledge Is Survival

Knowledge passed from generation to generation provides a guarantee for the next harvest.

Indian farmers are fighting for their intellectual property.


Large conglomerates take advantage of Indian farmers. The farmers forfeit their claim to their intellectual property and ultimately, to the knowledge that might allow them to resist climate change. The "Gene Campaign" has become their advocate.

Diversity is Nature's "Plan B": it provides a variety of possibilities. Let us suppose that a plant crop no longer grow once its native habitat has become flooded. However, some of its relatives are not afraid to get their feet wet and will take root even in mud. Or say the higher temperatures caused by climate change make it difficult for traditional crops. This is where Mother Nature plays her joker card called biodiversity. If one plant won't grow under these conditions, another will.

A pretty cool thing, this Nature. If only we could put it to use. Well, that's exactly what man has been doing since the beginning of agriculture. We not only know that a certain plant has medicinal properties; we also know that it can withstand drought or rain, or that the wind will easily knock it over. All of this knowledge; acquired by trial and error and passed on from generation to generation, helps to guarantee the next harvest and thus, the survival itself in a constantly changing environment.

"I want to help my country!"
People all over the world are struggling to preserve and protect this knowledge. Dr. Suman Sahai and the "Gene Campaign" NGO*, which she founded, are fighting for the rights of Indian farmers to their intellectual property. Trained in genetics, the scientist can look back on a long and successful career. She performed research and taught at universities in India, Canada, the USA and Germany. "It wasn't a professional mid-life crisis that brought me from research to the 'Gene Campaign'. I was a successful scientist and I really enjoyed my work," says Sahai. "It was my Indian identity. I want to help my country." And just what kind of service to the Indian people does Dr. Sahai find so rewarding?
"Gene Campaign" fights internationally for the fair treatment of indigenous intellectual property. Based on the premise that no one should have to be made to account for his property, Suman Sahai pillories scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and agricultural concerns as "biopirates" and accuses profit- hungry governments.
The "exploiters" not only disregard the moral principles that Sahai stands for but also violate the objectives and duties prescribed by the CBD (Convention on Biodiversity), all under the mantle of the WTO (World Trade Organization). Benefit-sharing remains merely an ideal because there is money in knowing how to use plants. Lots of money. Suman Sahai has estimated what fair benefit-sharing would look like in her view. Pharmaceutical companies might invest a billion dollars from the time a plant is discovered until a product is launched on the market. Deducting the outlays needed for advertising and standardization in Western markets of around 400 million dollars, that would place a value of 600 million dollars on the plant itself. This would provide an equitable basis for negotiations. The only question is: What is fair? Five percent for the people who discovered the knowledge? Or fifty? "Plus a share of the profits, naturally," says Dr. Suman Sahai.

It's no surprise that the "biopirates" are anything but thrilled by this calculation. This is where Sahai's reputation as a scientist is helpful. "Governments listen to me, even though they don't like what I have to say. My career as a scientist confers authority on me." This authority, plus the conviction of doing the right thing are apparent in her entire manner, in the rapid, almost brusque way she counters arguments, or in the way she calls for people to rethink. They are towering demands, made by a towering personality.

Bringing science to the village
The "Gene Campaign", however, doesn't just perform international publicity and stand up for the
rights of farmers. The organization also provides on- site assistance. The marketing of diversity by the industrial nations not only puts farmers at a disadvantage; their valuable know-how is slowly being lost. Optimized seeds dominate the market. Native low- performance varieties and alternative sources of food are slowly being forgotten. To put it drastically, farmers' survival is being pinned to one crop alone. In an effort to preserve indigenous knowledge, the NGO delivers "science where it's needed" — to the villages. Local communities assist in erecting simple seed banks. Villagers receive training in managing their seed supply and ultimately assume responsibility for them. The banks thus provide a guarantee of crop diversity and preserve the knowledge of their uses.

Educating for equity
Villagers are grateful for the attempts to secure their future by preserving diversity but many a battle against powerful adversaries needs to be fought before equitable benefit-sharing can proceed. Sahai hopes that future generations will learn to respect and deal fairly with resources — both intellectual and material — through education and publicity.

Verena Orth

Source : Correcting Images. Protecting and Using Biological Diversity - Preserving Cultural Diversity



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