Vandana Shiva,
Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature & Knowledge
(South End, 1997)

Vandana Shiva has become of one of my favorite environmental writers. She is a hard-hitting, tell-it-like-it-is, point-the-finger kind of writer. In Biopiracy, she shows us how the major corporations and commercial interests of the United States are engaging in and openly advocating piracy of knowledge and creativity in Third World countries, while the U.S. International Trade Commission whines that U.S. companies are losing $100 million to $300 million annually because of "weak" intellectual property protection in these same Third World countries.

The thing I most love about this author is that she starts off strong and does not waste space casually leading up to her point. She starts there in the beginning and does not let up. She is the most powerful writer I have encountered. Simply stated, she goes kaboom in your mind as soon as you start reading her work.

All you have to do to get the general tone of the book (and a hearty laugh if you are Native American) is to look at the title of the introduction: "Piracy Through Patents: The Second Coming of Columbus." That just says it all.

Shiva maintains that patents do not stimulate creativity and invention. Instead, they serve only as "instruments of market control." Shiva states that in a 1981-83 survey of firms from 12 industries, Edwin Mansfield found that 80 percent of chemical and pharmaceutical industries felt that patents were essential, compared to only 20 percent of those in the machinery, fabricated metal parts and petroleum industries. He said the following industries felt that patent protection was not essential: motor vehicle, instrument, office equipment, electrical equipment, rubber, textile and primary metal.

Shiva shows us how the scientific community has changed from colleagues openly discussing their findings to maintaining a cloak of secrecy about their work and even being prohibited by their employers from discussing them. She says this stifles social creativity and then sets about convincing the reader of her theory.

My favorite part of this book has to be "New Forms of Biological Pollution." The author relates some of the most classic examples of blunders in the natural ecosystems because scientists introduced non-native species into the system. For example, in 1970, a brainchild decided it was a good idea to introduce blue tilapia into Lake Effie in Florida. They carefully figured the ratio and stocked enough to make up 1 percent of the total weight of the fish in the lake. The blue tilapia did well in that environment -- very well. By 1974, they accounted for 90 percent of the total weight of fish in the lake, completely upsetting and permanently changing that ecosystem.

A worse case was when the British stocked Nile perch, a carnivorous fish that attains a weight of 150 pounds, in Lake Victoria in Africa. The lake contained 400 species of haplochromines, which only reach a pound or so in weight. In 1980, the Nile perch made up 1 percent of the catch. By 1985, it was 60 percent. At the time the author was writing this book, the haplochromines were down to 1 percent of the overall fish weight in the lake and it was believed that half of those 400 species are extinct. That was definitely a case of biological pollution in the extreme.

Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist and activist for the environment and women's rights. She is heavily involved in international affairs. In 1993 she won the Right Livelihood Award, which is known as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. She is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Natural Resource Policy and an associate editor of The Ecologist.

Once you start reading Shiva's work, you will be hooked. But be warned, do not read her work if you like to be complacent and remain unemotional because she will make you angry enough to demand change.

- Rambles
written by Alicia Karen Elkins
published 25 April 2004

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