Privatizing the Commons by Force
Corporate Monopoly and Bioserfdom in the 21st Century
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"NEW ENCLOSURES"Corporations are developing a variety of new mechanisms to secure monopoly control of natural resources via biotech and other emerging technologies.
A new report by ETC group identifies new mechanisms -- ranging from remote sensing technologies, biological monopolies, and legal contracts -- that are being developed to strengthen corporate dominance over new technologies.
According to ETC group, the political, practical and technical uncertainties surrounding intellectual property are increasingly unacceptable to industry -- and that is why companies are developing new tools for monopoly control -- what ETC group calls "New Enclosures."
The new 20-page ETC Communique (November/December 2001), entitled "New Enclosures: Alternative Mechanisms to Enhance Corporate Monopoly and Bioserfdom in the 21st Century" can be found, in full, on the ETC group website: http://www.rafi.org (note: soon their website will change to www.etcgroup.org).
PATENT PANDEMONIUM: The recently concluded WTO Ministerial meeting in Doha underscores that intellectual property is becoming ever less related to human rights and more a political power issue, as growing segments of society recognize that monopoly patents are preventing poor people from gaining access to life-saving drugs and life-sustaining seeds. Compounding the political uncertainties, the transaction costs of winning and defending patents is enormous. US-based companies alone spent more than $4 billion on patent litigation last year; it typically costs $1.5 million (per side) to litigate a patent, many start-up biotech companies are forced to budget as much for patent litigation as they are for research & development.
BIOLOGICAL MONOPOLIES, EYE IN THE SKY, CONTRACT CONTROLS: The ETC group is not suggesting that patents are about to disappear as a strategy to win corporate monopoly. However, it is critically important to examine New Enclosure mechanisms -- ranging from earth observation satellites, to genetic encryption, to technology user agreements -- that will allow companies to identify and control germplasm, territory and labour. ETC warns that New Enclosures threaten to erode the rights of farmers and workers, undermine national sovereignty and facilitate corporate consolidation. Here are some instances.
Earth observation satellites are being used to enforce proprietary rights and regulatory compliance. In Argentina, for example, satellite surveillance is already being used to monitor farmers' crops in an effort to halt tax evasion; satellite surveillance is also proposed to stop farmers from saving and exchanging proprietary seeds. Who even needs Monsanto's "Gene Police" when government authorities themselves are prepared to enforce private corporate rules?
The best known examples of New Enclosure mechanisms are the controversial genetic use restriction technologies (i.e. Terminator and Traitor) that are designed to impose biological monopolies on seeds. ETC group also examines genetic encryption for livestock, and a gene barrier technology for crops that could someday be used to limit industry liability from GM crop contamination (that is, the flow of transgenes from genetically modified crops to crop relatives nearby).
ETC group also examines legal contracts such as technology user agreements and material transfer agreements that go beyond intellectual property as mechanisms to control germplasm and technology, and to appropriate public research for private profit.
With New Enclosure technologies, companies are positioned to dictate regulatory standards to governments that lack the capacity to monitor and assess control mechanisms. ETC group asks, how long before the terms and conditions for "biosafety" and "consumer confidence" will be dictated by industry whims and not with any public participation?
ACTION NEEDED: Intergovernmental bodies and civil society organizations must move beyond intellectual property to examine how new technologies are becoming strategic alternatives for strengthening corporate control. New Enclosures must be carefully monitored, analyzed and independently regulated at the national and international level.
The United Nations General Assembly should establish a new "UN Centre on Commerce and Technology," with the necessary resources to address not only corporate power and concentration, but new commercial and technological combinations.
The ETC group believes that New Enclosures must become an important element for discussion in the process leading up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, September 2002 in Johannesburg.
The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. The ETC group is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.
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