Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 21 July 2010

Chinese anthropologist on foreign “biopiracy”

The 15 July issue of Southern Weekend published an article by Zhou Lei, identified as a PhD in anthropology. Zhou argues that Western companies operating in Yunnan’s border areas are engaged in “biopiracy,”  i.e. the production and patenting of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics based on local “local knowledge” of medicinal plants, animal genes and “cultural genes” (wenhua jiyin). The foreign companies earn huge profits, while China only gets a “miserable” financial return. Local governments are complicit in this process by offering the companies investment incentives. One example is the exploitation of “orchid resources” by an unnamed French company in Sipsongpanna with some “nominal” environmental protection projects but without “real compensation” for local people.

If this continues, Zhou warns, the “cream of the biological resources of Southwest China will be swallowed wholesale by domestic and foreign capital.” He suggests that the government should cooperate with local organisations to create a registry of “local knowledge” (bentu zhishi) and patent appropriate parts of it, set up a range of bodies like a “National Anti-Biopiracy Centre,” and create a foundation to support local cultural preservation using money from the patents.

Zhou’s article is interesting because the idea of biopiracy, which has been popular in India, has so far received little attention in China. India has undertaken similar government efforst to patent various medicinal plants and traditional Ayurveda and yoga practices, an initiative that some critics say has harmed the living body of traditional knowledge by straitjacketing it into modern codes and taking control away from its practitioners.

Moreover, while Western pharmaceutical companies are the usual targets of anti-biopiracy activists, the differentiation between Western and Chinese capital in the article is likely intended to resonate with nationalist sentiments — although the article subsequently also mentions “domestic capital.” In India and elsewhere, state efforts to patent “local knowledge” are often opposed by “indigenous” activists. Indeed, the areas Zhou describes are largely inhabited by “minority” ethnic groups, but the recognition of indigenous rights is clearly unacceptable for the Chinese government. Interestingly, Zhou makes a gesture to “indigeneity” by using  the term local (bentu). In a recent article, Michael Hathaway suggests that a discourse of indegeneity is in fact emerging among Chinese environmental activists.

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