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Treaty to Share Genetic Commons

The Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons was formally launched in February 2002 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil and at the PrepCom for Rio+10 Conference at the United Nations in New York City.  On both occasions, the introduction of the Treaty encouraged many new civil society partners to join the Initiative, and the meetings allowed those already involved and new allies to discuss the Treaty text, its goals, and its process in detail.   More than 359 NGOs from over 50 countries have joined in this unprecedented effort to prevent global life science companies from patenting the genes that make up millions of years of evolution.  The Treaty is based on two decades of movement building to stop the patenting of life forms and the creation of monopolies over seeds, food and medicine.  The Treaty represents a collective commitment to defend the integrity of life and peoples' rights.

Eighteen organizations, including the Foundation on Economic Trends and the International Forum on Globalization in the US, Centro de Educacion y Tecnología in Chile, Comitato Scientifico Antivivisezionista in Italy, the Council of Canadians and ETC Group in Canada, the Indigenous Peoples’ Biodiversity Network (IPBN) in Peru, the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE) in the Philippines, the Community Technology Development Trust in Zimbabwe, and the Via Campesina, the largest international coalition of farmers and peasants, have formed an international committee working to create a civil society process which would lead to the presentation of the Treaty to governments around the world.   The following information on the Treaty Initiative has been drafted with the input of many of its leading supporters, and provides some background and the current status, as well as our hopes for the future.

Principles supporting the Treaty Initiative

The aim of the Treaty Initiative is to prohibit all patents on plant, microorganism, animal, and human life including patents on genes and the products they code for, in their natural, purified or synthesized form, as well as chromosomes, cells, tissues, organs and organisms including cloned, transgenic and chimeric organisms.

Perhaps more than anything else, the Treaty Initiative is a positive affirmation of the sacred integrity of the earth’s genetic inheritance and of our shared rights and duties to defend this integrity and to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all humanity and does not become the exclusive commercial monopoly of anyone.  The Treaty attempts to affirm a “positive” rather than pose a “negative”.  

To be clear, the Treaty text must support the sovereignty of nations and of communities to exchange or withhold the genetic materials they hold in trust.  The only prohibitions are not to destroy genetic diversity and not to claim – or allow others to claim – monopoly rights over germplasm.  Supporters of the Treaty Initiative wish to affirm national sovereignty and community rights as well as the right of individuals whose genetic makeup is subject to discrimination (commercial or special) to have their own genetic integrity and rights ensured.  The primary aim of the Treaty is to stop corporations from pirating the South’s and communities’ genetic inheritance.

For many decades, life science companies have been scouting the world in search of genes in microbes, plants, animals, and human populations that might be commercially valuable in the biological marketplace.  The US and other governments have allowed companies to lay claim over thousands of genes in the form of intellectual property rights.  Many governments and indigenous and farming communities, especially in the developing world, complain of bio-piracy and argue that companies should not be allowed free reign to access the genetic resources of their lands without prior consent or proper financial compensation.

At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, most of the world’s nations signed a treaty that, among other provisions, affirmed the principle that every country enjoys absolute sovereignty over the regulation and use of genetic resources within its own borders.  The treaty further reaffirmed the right of every country to enter into bilateral agreements with other governments, commercial, academic, and other institutions to sell bioprospecting rights for their genetic information.  The signatory countries acknowledged the right of commercial and other enterprises to patent genetic information. 

We believe that when host countries receive compensation for exclusive bioprospecting rights, a framework is created for a new and dangerous form of high-tech biocolonialism.  Host countries, especially in the developing world, will be given token financial compensation for the right to exploit their domestic genetic resources and then be forced to buy back patented products from seeds to drugs at exorbitant prices, further deepening the divide between the “haves” and “have-not” nations. 

Furthermore, the notion of selling exclusive bioprospecting rights and securing a monopoly in the form of patents on genetic information runs counter to the very principles of shared responsibility for the earth’s biodiversity espoused by the countries that signed the Biodiversity Convention Treaty.  Sustainable global development is an unrealizable goal in a world where countries and corporations can enter into exclusive monopoly agreements to profit off of the genetic blueprints of millions of years of biological evolution on Earth.

So how does this initiative differ from current efforts underway – the Biological Diversity Convention, the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, TRIPS, etc. – to establish a global regime to govern and regulate the use of biological resources?  Our initiative adopts some common themes but differs in one very fundamental respect.  Unlike the other initiatives, we oppose the extension of intellectual property rights to any living thing as well as the components of all living things.  We believe that our evolutionary heritage is not a negotiable commodity.  While we hail the good intentions of both the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU), their goal of equitably sharing the earth's biological heritage can only be realized by prohibiting all commercial patents on life.

We agree with the position that the gene pool and its products are a global commons – a position often put forward by the life science companies and some governments, including the United States.  Unfortunately, the life science companies have misinterpreted and misappropriated the term “global commons” to claim unlimited access to the world’s genetic diversity for the purposes of converting it into private intellectual property.  They have failed to understand that because the Earth’s gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, is a global commons and, therefore, a product of nature, it cannot be claimed, in whole or in part, as intellectual property.

We agree with the position, often extolled by the group of 77 and China, that governments and Indigenous Peoples have the sovereign responsibility to oversee the biological resources within their borders and determine how they are managed and shared.  However, because the gene pool is a global commons, it cannot be sold by any institution or individual as genetic information.

All of the current arrangements and consultative initiatives, to the extent that they are based on the principle of selling “prospecting rights” to genetic information and extending intellectual property protection to life, are unacceptable mechanisms for governing the gene pool in the Age of Biology.

The Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons is designed to make every government and Indigenous Peoples a “caretaker” of their geographic part of the global genetic commons and to establish the appropriate statutory mechanisms to ensure both national sovereignty and open access to the flow of genetic information, in the spirit of collective responsibility for our shared evolutionary legacy.

We believe that the earth’s gene pool is a collective legacy and a shared trust and should not be reduced to negotiable commodities in the global marketplace.  At the same time, we agree with the principle affirmed at the Rio summit that communities and countries are responsible for managing and stewarding genetic resources within their borders.  There is a difference, however, between the sovereign right to act as a trustee - to be responsible for sustaining that part of the earth’s biodiversity that lies within one’s national or community boundaries - and the illegitimate act of entering into exclusive monopoly arrangements with commercial institutions to profit off of the earth’s genetic legacy.   The gene pool exists apriori to and independent of any contemporary political or commercial institution.  It is therefore not reducible to monopolies in the hands of governments or companies. 

These are three guiding principles that have inspired the Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons:

1.      The earth’s genetic endowment is a collective legacy and shared trust.

2.      Every community and country has the right and responsibility, assisted if requested by the international community, to manage that portion of the earth’s genetic endowment that lies within its territory. 

3.      While communities and countries have sovereignty over the terms by which the genetic materials they hold in trust are shared with the world, that genetic information cannot be legitimately claimed as monopoly property in the marketplace.  Selling exclusive bioprospecting rights or claiming genetic information as exclusive intellectual property is a violation of the spirit of biodiversity.

The Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons does not, in any way, preclude existing commercial and trade arrangements between countries and companies to buy and sell agricultural commodities and other biologically derived products in the global marketplace.  The Treaty Initiative is designed only to ensure that the genetic information from living organisms does not become the exclusive monopoly of countries or companies. 





Wall Street Journal, Critics of Biotech Industry Sign Petition Against Patenting of Genes, Plants, Tissue, February 1, 2002

New Scientist, It Isn't Yours; Campaigners Call for Ban on All Genetic Patents, February 9, 2002

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