Biopiracy, When Indigenous Practices Are Stolen And Patented

Quassia Amara
Quassia Amara
Martine Valo

PARIS â€" One of France's state institutions is under fire for what critics call a textbook example of "biopiracy," an issue that is also at the heart of a new bill the French Senate approved just last month.

Last year, the country's Research Development Institute (IRD) earned a patent on a molecule extracted from the leaves of a small tropical tree, the Quassia Amara, known in Latin America for its insecticidal and medicinal properties. IRD researchers isolated a specific molecule, Simalikalactone E (SkE), that they intend to use for malaria medicines.

The problem, according to the Fondation France Liberté-Danielle Mitterrand, a watchdog group that has advocated against biopiracy for years, is that the IRD didn't come up with the idea alone.

Before extracting the molecule, the IRD first questioned Creole people in French Guiana and members of the Kali’na and Palikur indigenous groups, natives of the northern coastal areas of South America, about their traditional medicines. But it never sought their consent to develop future medications, nor did it involve them in the SkE discovery process, Fondation France Liberté-Danielle Mitterrand alleges.

"This is an example of flagrant injustice towards the indigenous peoples of French Guiana," says Emmanuel Poilane, the group's director.

The foundation is challenging the European Patent Office's decision to grant the IRD a patent in this case. "We argue that as regards SkE, the supposed invention is not new because researchers simply reproduced knowledge passed down from generation to generation," says Poilane.

The case has also drawn the ire of Rodolphe Alexandre, French Guiana's highest ranking official. "The misuse of people’s traditional knowledge without their consent and the total lack of return to the community cannot be tolerated," he said. Alexandre said he learned "with astonishment" about the filing of a patent on a "typical sort of local traditional medicine," and described the IRD researchers as having a "total lack of ethics."

For the IRD, which has approximately 2,000 employees (including 800 researchers) and has worked for more than 60 years in Africa, the Mediterranean, Latin America and Asia, the accusations are a tough blow. "It gives us a bad reputation," says John Paul Moatti, the institute's head.

Moatti says the controversy impedes the IRD's ability to do research, and argues that researchers are in a race against time to develop new treatments before mosquitos develop resistance to existing ones. "To move forward, we have no choice but to file patents," he says.

France, in the meantime, is preparing to ratify the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement that looks to foster a more equitable distribution of the benefits derived from genetic resources. France originally signed the accord in 2011. But is it really ready to adhere to the new rules?

Moatti promises to "of course follow the law as soon as it is passed." Not everyone is convinced. Thomas Burelli, a doctor of law at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, says French public researchers tend to forget all about shared knowledge once it enters their labs. As such, they've never really demonstrated a willingness to commit to the Nagoya Protocol, he claims.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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