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Apr 20, 2004

Life as Commerce

by admin — last modified Apr 20, 2004 12:20 PM

Report on a side event on the impacts of the commodification of biological and cultural diversity organized by the Global Forest Coalition, in cooperation with the World Rainforest Movement, Oilwatch and Friends of the Earth International

Miguel Lovera, coordinator of the Global Forest Coalition, started with a brief introduction on the "Life as Commerce" project, which analyses the impacts of the privatization and commercialization of so-called "ecological services" on small farmers and other local people.


Elizabeth Bravo of Oilwatch talked about the situation in her country, Ecuador. She explained how the Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador believe in the concept of Pachamama, Earth as a a sacred mother. She rejected the concept of environmental services, as it turns people into clients of the Earth, which is like turning children into the clients of their mother. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government has strongly embraced the concept of environmental services, and they are actively trying to privatize and commercialize natural functions like water provision and purification, biodiversity - for biopiracy purposes, landscape - for tourism and carbon sinks. The bilateral trade agreement they are currently negotiating with the US would even oblige them to adopt such an ecoservices approach.


Raquel Nunez of World Rainforest Movement explained how protected areas have lead to the expulsion of Indigenous Peoples from the very first national park - Yosemite in the US - on. This trend is continuing until today, and many Indigenous Peoples and local communities are being subtly or forcefully displaced to make way for business. The increasing tendency of governments to sell off protected area management into the hands of "partnerships" of corporations and conservation organizations is a serious threat for Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Governments should respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. The Mumbai Initiative, which came forth from the World Social Forum in 2004, is trying to establish a global movement to ensure forest conservation and to protect the rights of people to exploit their own forest resources.


Abdul Wahib Situmorang of WALHI/ Friends of the Earth-Indonesia explained how different "stakeholders" have different perspectives on conservation. Indigenous Peoples see it as a way to protect their livelihood, while governments see conservation as a project for money. Some NGOs see ecology and people as one, while others look at conservation from the ecological perspective only. There are many examples of the tensions these different perspectives cause. When the Indonesian Government and conservation NGOs decided to establish the national park Lori Lindu, they did not respect the fact that people had been living there in harmony with nature for a long time. Instead, they saw them as a threat and tried to displace them. In the Komodo National park, there are violent conflicts between the government and the local people who depend on the area, leading to almost a dozen of casualties. So what is the benefit of conservation if people are removed from the place they live?


Thomas Jalong from the SAM/Friends of the Earth-Malaysia Sarawak office talked about the threats of the privatization of parks in Sarawak. There are no less than 10 national parks in Sarawak, and most are located in areas where Indigenous Peoples live. According to the law, native communities have a right of access to the resources in the park, but now the management of one park has been given in hands of a company, which is promoting an ecotourism project, and trying to limit the participation of local people in the park's management. People were promised that they would be able to participate in the management of the park, but the company ignores them. Nowadays, the company is developing a particularly big tourism resort on the edge of the park, without any consultation with the local people, and it is now pressuring the local people to resettle, to give way to the development of other infrastructure in the park.


Isaac Rojas of COECO-CEIBA/ Friends of the Earth-Costa Rica described the establishment of the National Biodiversity Institute of his country, INBIO, which was established as a private company. It has specialized in facilitating biopiracy. Thirteen years ago it drafted the first biopiracy agreement with the US company Merck, in which it sold Costarican genetic resources for some 100.000 dollars. The money was to be spent on conservation, but by now we know that local people and Indigenous Peoples have not benefited from this commerce. And even INBIO itself has admitted recently that biopiracy is not that profitable as a business. However, it is still pushing for a flexible regime on access to genetic resources, as it is afraid companies will not invest in its genetic resources if there are too many rules. Meanwhile, it is unknown what happens to the genetic resources that are sold. Some of them are patented, but nobody knows what is patented and what not.


The Costarican government is also involved in the privatization of parks, which leads to further biopiracy. An even bigger threat has derived from the negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement with the US, as the US has forced Costa Rica to sign the Convention of the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV) of 1991 which requires countries to develop a patent-like intellectual property rights system for plant varieties. Water and beaches are also increasingly being privatized, with the argument that it is good to involve more stakeholders in their management. Happily, the public in Costa Rica is becoming more aware of this biopiracy, and social movements have started an active campaign to close down INBIO.


Alejandro Argumedo, an Indigenous representative of from Peru described how the capital of Peru is threatened by a drought because a mining company had used up all the water of a mountain lake that was key to the water provision of the capital. The Quechua people foster their spiritual relationship with nature, and they see the water, the mountain lakes, and the surrounding ecosystems as one. For Indigenous peoples it is unacceptable that something that is sacred is being privatized.


Peru is a centre of origin of potatoes, but the rich variety of potato races is a direct result, not only of the surrounding ecosystem, including water levels, soil quality and pollinators, but also of the local economy as people plant the varieties they need. This economy is essentially non-monetary. So if you privatize these resources the entire system is disrupted. The threats of privatization are very concrete, though, as the interests of companies to buy these resources are increasing.


During the debate, Abraham Baffoe of Friends of the Earth-Ghana described how the situation is very similar in Ghana. In the early 1920's Ghana started to establish national parks, which the local people and the companies could not access. But nowadays most resources outside the national parks are already exploited. So the government has started to give out concessions for logging and mining in national parks. Meanwhile, the local people still have no access to these protected areas. The patrolling and policing in the parks is only to protect them against local people, which are not able to access the areas they need to sustain their livelihood.


People also cautioned against the corporate take-over of the Biodiversity Convention (CBD). While the CBD became more social-oriented in the first years of its existence, it has increasingly become influenced by corporations since the mid nineties, and its social agenda actually seems to go backwards. However, we need to make sure the more progressive NGOs and social movements become involved and strengthen their efforts to counter this trend, so that we convince governments to secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.


Kuala Lumpur, 12 February 2004