Few in the West truly have the gift to stand outside the dominant cultural assumptions about science, economics, nature and technology. Fortunately, we can read Vandana Shiva.
Her latest book Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge is a critique of the colonization of life itself by transnational corporations through genetic engineering, patents and intellectual property rights.
Biotechnology, Shiva argues, is the product of a Eurocentric and reductionist world view which regards nature and indigenous knowledge of local ecosystems as ‘empty’ resources to be enclosed and exploited for Western capital, much as the ‘New World’ was regarded as empty land by the colonists. ‘The duty to incorporate savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of commercialized Western science and technology,’ she writes. For example, while traditional knowledge may increase the efficiency of pinpointing plants’ medicinal uses by more than 400 per cent, the system of Intellectual Property Rights only recognizes the ‘ownership’ of this knowledge by transnational corporations.
For Shiva biopiracy is fuelled by the monocultural logic of free trade and globalization, which are the latest manifestation of the colonial mindset. Monoculture, in agriculture as in society, leads to breakdown and fundamentally threatens sustainability.
In a world in which the US Commerce Secretary ‘owns’ the cell lines of the Hagahai of Papua New Guinea, and seeds themselves no longer regenerate life, this book moves the biotech debate deep into fundamentals. Shiva may not be the liveliest writer, but her analytic strength and perceptiveness make her essential reading.*Katharine Ainger*