Biopiracy, or the cultural appropriation of scientific knowledge

In my last post, I talked about how one can distinguish cultural appropriation from equitable cultural exchange, or cultural syncretism. Generally, when thinking along these terms, we usually think of art, food, music and fashion as culturally appropriated artifacts.

But what about cultural appropriation of knowledge or intellectual property? How do we even recognize it when we it happens?

First, let’s preface with this.

This video touches on a lot of things that bother me about cultural appropriation broadly, with respect to lifestyle, the pastiches of eastern religious beliefs in a “postcolonial condescending way”, but most notably for our concerns now, it talks about how whenever something termed as “alternative medicine” has been proven to work we just come to know it as medicine. We can then perhaps patent it, mass produce it and make it widely available for all to use. Granted, the scientific rigor that is at least in theory behind a drug being approved for mass manufacturing and sale is something that one can stand by, it is difficult to stay naive to the history and idiosyncrasies of intellectual property issues in the scientific and industrial community.

Biopiracy refers to the process of discovering and commercializing products based on biological resources, often borrowed from traditional and indigenous knowledge of less advantaged communities, without compensation or recognition of their cultural origins. Due to the commericialization and marketing of these products, we may have a vague notion of the natural roots of them (See: Greenwashing), however, the branding of these products masks the appropriated aspect and as such, biopiracy can be very hard to recognize unlike other more explicit forms of cultural appropriation.

The insidious nature of biopiracy does more than just have an economic impact on the groups of people from whom the knowledge is plundered. It is, pushed to its logical extreme, a form of intellectual theft and thus not only takes away the potential for monetary profit, but also undermines the intellectual heritages of groups, thereby perpetuating stereotypical views about the scientific poverty of the so-called less-developed nations.

The neem is a tree native to South Asia whose medicinal property has been known to locals for thousands of years. Yet, in 1995, the US Department of Agriculture, in coalition with a pharmaceutical research firm patented a technique to derive an anti-fungal agent from the neem. After a lot of kerfuffle, the patent was overturned in 2005.

However, the pharmaceutical industry challeged this overturning with the argument that the traditional knowledge could not considered prior art as it had never been published in the context of modern western convention of scientific publishing – a view one would consider discriminatory, in the context that in most countries, prior art is considered anything that is public knowledge – including those within the realm of written and oral traditions.

There are other countless examples of biopiracy, such as the debacles concerning the basmati rice, enola bean, hoodia and many, many more.

In a world that is way more focused on information sharing across disciplines and borders, one begins to question whether biopiracy would indeed be an issue if it was not for the nature of patent laws and related royalty systems associated with scientific knowledge. In its present state, much of patent law would give monopoly over the potentially biopirated knowledge to specific entities, even though it may be old news for many other people.  This falls under a broader debate with regards to intellectual property laws and copyrights. However, one thing we can probably agree on regardless of our stances on the legal complexities, is the damaging effect of the intellectual fraud and plundering. The question remains, what framework of ethics should be in place to hold persons and organizations accountable for claiming a “discovery”? Are societies pre-emptively supposed to protect themselves against biopiracy by having their traditional knowledge recorded in a manner by Western science, or is that simply perpetuating a problematic worldview?

Comments and feedback, as always, are appreciated.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange – An Indian perspective

A couple of days ago, my friend Ionatan over at Kaleidoscope Flux had a very interesting story to share about the history of Quaker Oats. He questioned the appropriateness of using the religious community of Quakers as a brand and at what instances it may or may not be okay to co-opt aspects of a culture this way.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish an exchange of ideas between two cultures on a level playing field and cultural appreciation from what we mean when we use the term ‘cultural appropriation’. Cultural appropriation necessarily connotes a power differential that puts the culture being appropriated at a disadvantaged level from another more dominant culture. As Ionatan put it, given the history of persecution and genocide of both the Jewish diaspora and Native American communities, it may not be wise to simply borrow aspects from these cultures and use it in a way that is not at all related or is completely divorced from their sordid histories. As an outsider to both of these ethnic groups, I can probably safely herald most Native American and Jewish appropriations to be largely insensitive.

However, as an Indian, I can think of numerous instances in which valuable and equitable cultural exchanges actually took place between foreign nationals and Indians, and equally as many outrageous modern appropriations and caricatures of a certain Indian hegemony.

What I am trying to say is that there are ways by which it is technically slightly more okay to borrow from aspects of South Asian cultures, because South Asians, while still facing tremendous challenges both in their native countries and elsewhere in the world, have held a position of historical and political importance and voice in a way that Native American communities, and until somewhat more recently, Jewish communities, simply could not afford.

Since ancient times, South Asians have traded with Europeans, Africans and other Asian nations which allowed for a long-standing tradition of cultural exchange between these areas without the power differential that is notable in cases related to Native Americans and Jewish people. Of course, this is by no means absolute, and things quickly changed due to European colonization, however, South Asians retained a collective understanding of what real equitable cultural exchange can look like, economically, scientifically and artistically.

Since the advent of colonialism, however, it has become quite fashionable to portray India as magical and exotic land that benefits a certain kind of Western individual in their search for self-discovery – the whole nation becomes but an instrument to the enlightenment of our privileged white heroes/heroines, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of sorts.

Take these images from Vogue UK for example:

The model in the pictures cannot be said to be participating in anything resembling equitable cultural exchange.  To begin with, she makes her inherent privileged status among the backdrop of possibly the most impoverished and technologically underdeveloped parts of India apparent with simply the stark contrast in her clothing, using historically stereotypical images of a country that is as diverse in terms of culture as economic wealth and simply using this context as a proverbial accessory to her implied worldliness. There is apparently also a video associated with this photoshoot which shows all the hustle and bustle of industry in the parts where this took place, from which we can deduce that the creators simply avoided those truths about India in favour of an aesthetic more appropriate for the western palate seeking the traditional Oriental thrills. Oh yeah, and in this picture, there is an actual snake charmer.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s impossible to create good fusion between Eastern and Western things. I’d condone that wholeheartedly, really. What I’m really up against is the inherent lala-landification of India while completely ignoring the struggles of gazillion different forces and their tangible and pragmatic effects in favour of a spiritual and religious experience (which also is terribly misunderstood by most) that force a monolithic understanding of an entire people and the commodification of complex histories and cultures for the consumption of the self-actualization-hungry westerner. This is the same sort of thing that would cause a young budding Casanova to ignore the misogyny in the Kama Sutra, and a queer New Age enthusiast to overlook how yoga is advocated as a cure for homosexuality; not fully understanding how blind western endorsement of certain trends can exacerbate many social ills local to South Asia.

Now for an actual good representation of what equitable cultural exchange could look like (or at least a step in the right direction) in the Indian context, check out Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues. Of course, Hindu fundamentalists hate it, but who cares! While it’s done by a very nice lady from San Francisco/Brooklyn, who does gain some self-actualization from her Indian experience, it is not done in the same condescending way as the Vogue photoshoot and is very well-researched. She actually brings to our attention a series of historical and cultural debates within Hinduism, most notably the feminist viewpoints, and she does it while being funny!

I’m reluctant to leave these thoughts hanging without considering how all this ties in with what theorist Spivak calls strategic essentialism, but I figure that would merit an entirely separate discussion.