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10 / 2010
New mapping technologies make it easier to collect data on biodiversity, making biopiracy easier and taking intellectual property out of the hands of indigenous communities. ‘New forms of biopiracy and new strategies for biomass control may mean that the realisation of rights, benefits and justice for indigenous peoples are receding,’ Pat Mooney writes.
When the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we coined the term ‘biopiracy’ to argue that the treaty signaled the biggest grab of indigenous knowledge and sovereign resources in 500 years. While claiming to establish national authority over the biodiversity within national borders and creating a modest (albeit welcome) space for the participation of indigenous and local communities, the de facto impact of the CBD was to establish that all of the biodiversity (genes and species) pirated by colonial powers prior to 1992 and kept in zoos, herbaria, botanical gardens or gene banks instantly became the legal property of the coloniser. In one myopic moment, all the biodiversity that had been collected (and studied and considered to have value) became the heritage of the thieves; leaving to indigenous peoples and post-colonial governments all the remaining biodiversity not collected and not known to have value. This was presented as a great victory for the people.
In the intervening 18 years, indigenous peoples and the governments of the global South have been fighting an uphill battle to gain acceptance of some kind of ‘access and benefit sharing’ deal that would be both fair and financially beneficial. Some now believe the goal is in sight while others fear it is slipping away – overridden by new tactics and technologies.
As much as the 1992 Convention imposed a mass intergovernmental amnesia that wiped away history, new developments at the CBD and under the so-called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’s (REDD+) agenda at the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), may allow new technologies to commercialise the biodiversity that has yet to be commodified, enabling a new wave of plunder of the territories of peasants and indigenous peoples. For instance, until now, forests have not been considered ‘carbon sinks’ within the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the UNFCCC, because, among other reasons, of the difficulty of quantifying the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb. New technologies, including satellite surveillance, are capable of detecting the changes in forest biomass. The application of these technologies would necessarily lead to increased surveillance not only of ‘trees’, but the whole forest, as well as the indigenous peoples who live there. Furthermore, digital and genomic technologies will upload the remaining biodiversity onto the Internet where it can be modified and monopolised by those with sufficient techno prowess. Once digitised, the living biodiversity may become commercially irrelevant and the land ploughed to more profitable purposes in the service of the new Carbohydrate Economy.
Satellites and fixed-wing aircraft can now combine to map and monitor (in three dimensions) tropical biomass in ways not imaginable when the Biodiversity Convention came into force. Cameras mounted on light aircraft or helicopters can use hyper-spectral imaging to analyse visible and infrared wavelengths that reveal variations in vegetation. Precise light measurements expose soil nutrients identifying not only the type of surface vegetation but what lurks beneath. The technology was originally developed to find burial sites but has branched out to service a multitude of interests from archaeologists to the CIA, and now to facilitate the privatisation and commercialisation of the ‘air’ of the forests.
The potential for biomapping (and biopiracy) is considerable. Plants are affected by the composition of the soil they grow on. Wavelengths in the range 400 to 2350 nanometres can be monitored from the air to detect any changes in water or soil chemistry. It is already possible for airborne police to identify human skin and determine whether the body is alive or dead. (1) The near-term possibilities include the aerial identification of proprietary crops or livestock with unique genetic traits or DNA markers and (importantly for indigenous and local communities) the opportunity to triangulate on soils, bugs or plants offering industrial uses. After it is pinpointed and pocketed, the biodiversity and its land can be used for other purposes.
In September, the Carnegie Institute at Stanford University announced that, with World Wildlife Fund and the Peruvian government, it had mapped over 16,600 square miles of Amazonian forest (about the area of Switzerland). While satellites mapped vegetation and recorded disturbances, the satellite images were complemented by a fixed-wing aircraft deploying Carnegie’s proprietary LiDAR technology (light detection and ranging) to produce three-dimensional representations of the area’s vegetation structure. On the ground, scientists converted the structural data into carbon density aided by a modest network of field plots. Carnegie’s novel system brings geology, land use, and emissions data together to advise Peru – and anyone else with access to the data – that the region’s total forest carbon storage weighs in at about 395 million tonnes with emissions of around 630,000 tonnes per year. The IPCCC estimate for carbon storage in the surveyed area was 587 million tonnes. However, under REDD-type programmes, Carnegie’s high-resolution approach could yield more credit per tonne of carbon. (2) The system is also cheap. Peru’s map costs US$0.08 per hectare and a similar map in Madagascar was only US$0.06. (3) So, in the world of carbon trading, how much biomass can the land produce?
The implications of these infraREDD technologies are substantial. It may be possible for industry or governments to cherry pick the biodiversity they currently regard as important while discounting and discarding the rest. Further, the technology may allow the tracking of the people in the forest influencing land rights negotiations. Additionally, the ability to assess the total biomass and its carbon value renders the biodiversity irrelevant and only the biomass commercially important.
INFOREDD – iBIO AND DIGITAL DIVERSITY
Complacency that industry can do without most of the world’s biological diversity is terribly wrong – but that doesn’t change the threat to biodiversity. Synthetic biologists – who insist they will be able to rebuild extinct species from scratch in their laboratories and build any new species commerce might desire – sometimes don’t see the need to conserve the ‘old stuff’ just in case. At the beginning of this year, scientists at Cambridge University discovered a way to trick cells into reading DNA differently. The result is that instead of having only 20 amino acids from which to build virtually everything in nature, scientists now have 276 amino acids and claim they can construct almost any kind of living organism they imagine. In May this year, a company called Synthetic Genomics managed to construct the first-ever self-replicating artificial microbe – a species that has never before lived on earth. Now that they have established the ‘proof of principle’, synthetic biologists believe they can construct micro-organisms that can turn any biomass into food, fuels, pharmaceuticals or plastics.
New information technologies encourage their hubris. The International Barcode of Life project (IBoL) and the related Consortium for the Barcode of Life, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution in the United States (which is not a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity), are mapping the genome of every known species, placing the electronic maps on the Internet. In addtion, thousands of samples are being sent voluntarily to the Smithsonian and other institutions of the global North, like the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario in Guelph, Canada. Once mapped, it will be theoretically possible for corporations – armed, perhaps, with the self-replicating technology patented by Synthetic Genomics Inc.– to download a genetic blueprint, tweak it at will, and construct new life forms. Life-science enterprises from pharmaceuticals to seeds might conclude that gene banks, zoos and botanical gardens – and conservation programs – are passé.
IBOL is not alone. One ‘competitor’ initiative called the Genome 10K project (dedicated to mapping the whole genome of 10,000 species) is expected to cost no more than US$50 million (US$5,000 per species). Again, it is expected the species map will be available to anyone with access to the Internet. (4)
Just like Carnegie’s LiDAR technology, the cost of DNA sequencing is becoming negligible - a hundred-thousandth of what it was a decade ago. For example, the first human genome sequence (with 3 billion base pairs to assay) took 13 years and US$3 billion. Now, it can be read in 8 days for US$10,000. Oxford Nanopore Technologies and rival Pacific Biosciences both claim that within three years they will be able to map the human genome in 15 minutes for US$1000. Impressively, Pacific Biosciences says it will be able to assay a genome from a single DNA molecule. (5) If (or is it when?) that time comes, it will be possible to store a molecule of all the world’s estimated 10 million species embedded on one side of a credit card-sized disc – with the digital map of each species ensconced on the other side… Eden take out.
Again, once digitized, the industrial world will see no need for biological diversity. Rain forests – or, more accurately, the land in which the trees stand – can be put to ‘more productive’ purposes maximising the production of biomass. According to some venture capitalists, the most important economic factor in the world today is that only 23.8 per cent of the world’s annual terrestrial biomass finds its way to the marketplace – meaning that 76.2 per cent of the world’s annual terrestrial biomass is available to be monopolised. At stake is the control over - not one but several multi-trillion dollar industries.
In 2010, the UN’s Year of Biological Diversity, as indigenous and local communities and governments debate the fairness of an Access and Benefit-Sharing agreement and the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their valuable contribution to conserving biodiversity,new forms of biopiracy and new strategies for biomass control may mean that the realisation of rights, benefits and justice for indigenous peoples are receding even further away than in 1992. For corporations, the issue is no longer who will own ecosystems and biodiversity, but who will be the new biomassters.
This article was originally written for the forthcoming No REDD! Reader compiled by Carbon Trade Watch and the Indigenous Environmental Network. It highlights the dangers of REDD and REDD+ and features contributions from social movements and indigenous peoples’ organisations worldwide.
This article is also available in French.