The Commons Touch

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An international network of activists and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) has unveiled a new strategy - a proposed global covenant - in a concerted attempt to prohibit patents on life in all forms.

A twelve-member working group that includes well-known signatories like Vandana Shiva, Jeremy Rifkin, the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace has endorsed a draft version of a Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons.

The core group is now soliciting support for the document, which it wants to have adopted by the United Nations' Rio+10 conference in South Africa, to be held in September, 2002. (Rio+10 will review the ten-year-old UN Conference on Environment and Development. That conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, was popularly known as the Earth Summit.)

Supporters of the draft treaty say the document could garner the support of more than a thousand NGOs for the upcoming Johannesberg conference.

Those who sign on agree that all forms of plant, animal and human life are the global commons: resources to be shared equally by all of the earth's inhabitants. If it became binding, such a treaty would also forbid any person or group from claiming ownership over anything derived from the planet's gene pool.

"Essentially, it's about patents on life and believing that the genetic colonialism that's taking place with harvesting genes is a violation against a commons that is a legacy of all mankind," explains Tom Speciale, the media director at Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends.

"We believe that the genes and proteins they code for cannot be held as intellectual property. They are a global commons that belongs, just like air does, to humanity. In that sense, no one can be excluded from having access to those genes."

The signatories say the pact is intended to designate every government and indigenous peoples as a "caretaker," with the authority to look after the biological resources found within their borders. The draft indicates that indigenous peoples and governments would determine how to manage and share their geographical portion of the planet's genetic commons, although selling or staking claim to genetic information would be forbidden.

The Rainforest Action Network's president, Randy Hayes, says he's confident the treaty will win widespread public support. Mounting concern over genetically modified foods, he says, has made the global public wary of companies that try and patent genes.

"People are concerned about their direct personal health, primarily through the food that they eat, and that's why there's been such an outrage expressed in Europe and now finally in Canada and the United States," Hayes says. "I think this is going to be a lightning-rod issue."

Julie Delahanty, a researcher with the Rural Advancement Foundation International, agrees that the global public is increasingly suspicious of biotechnology: now the perfect time to unleash the proposed treaty.

"[The public has] become a lot more aware of the issue and how ludicrous the whole notion of patenting life forms and human genes and plants and animals is. There's a lot of support for this sort of initiative."

The treaty's signatories say they will now be calling on other groups, political parties and governments to enlist popular support for the initiative.

You might also be interested in "Testy, Testy." Penni Mitchell's rabble article is about genetically modified foods and Health Canada. Is enough being done to make sure these foods are safe?

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