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By Edith Papp
Noble scientific purposes mask their desire for profit, and only the permanent vigilance of environmentalists - and civil society increasingly alert to attempts to loot the genetic resources of poor nations - allows them to be unmasked in time.
They are nothing like their predecessors, attracted by the gold and silver of the galleons that carried the treasures of the New World to Europe. The dreaded skull and bone flags do not fly on their ships, and they themselves do not wear an eye patch, hooks, or wooden legs. Noble scientific purposes mask their desire for profit, and only the permanent vigilance of environmentalists - and civil society increasingly alert to attempts to loot the genetic resources of poor nations - allows them to be unmasked in time.
They are called "biopirates" and one of their most illustrious representatives travels in these months the South Seas collecting microorganisms with a view to controversial projects to create artificial life in the laboratory and other objectives.
This is J. Craig Venter, former director of the American company Celera Genomics, and known since 2000 as the decipher of the human genome, determined this time to investigate - with the obvious objective of later patenting - the enormous biodiversity of the oceans and, above all, its most unknown elements: marine microorganisms, of which only 1% is currently known, as stated at the Global Biotechnology Forum, held in 1999.
As president of the Institute for Alternative Biological Energies (IBEA) - a non-profit organization, but endowed with an extraordinary ability to obtain generous grants from entities such as the Department of Energy - Venter undertook, since August 2003, an ambitious project to better know exotic microbes, considered as the possible raw material for the creation of new sources of energy and new forms of life.
On board his ship, which bears the suggestive and well-deserved name of "Sorcerer II" (The Sorcerer), the scientist is currently carrying out the South American stage of his world voyage, during which he plans to take samples every 200 miles in the waters. close to Mexico, Panama, Ecuador and Chile before heading towards French Polynesia, and then moving to Africa and Australia. Before he had traveled, with identical objectives, the east coast of the United States, that of Canada and the Sargasso Sea, in the vicinity of Bermuda.
An international NGO based in Canada, the ETC group, dedicated to the promotion of cultural and biological diversity and the defense of human rights, has recently denounced that Venter's investigations, funded by the US administration, thus appropriate the genetic resources of the nations of the South, in violation of the Convention on Biodiversity, which the government of Washington was careful not to sign at the time.
The deliberate inclusion in the project of specially protected territories, such as the Galapagos Islands, with its unique ecosystem, which has begun to provoke protests by environmental organizations, raises even greater concerns due to the lack of transparency in the actions of official authorities, as seem little interested in protecting the national ecological wealth.
Furthermore, the investigations of this biopirate not only pose the lurid problem of national sovereignty over biological resources, but also force one to wonder for what purpose these resources will be used, once the samples arrive at the IBEA laboratories in Rockville. (Maryland) and the scientists were able to sequence the DNA of the microbes.
What makes these plans even more dangerous, ETC points out, is that two main lines of the scientific revolution converge in them, the predominance of which will bring - as the current "gold rush" shows to appropriate the biological resources of others - a new wave of plundering the wealth of many developing countries, lacking the technological capacity and financial resources to use them for their own benefit.
It is about biotechnology and nanotechnology: while the first has been dedicated to introducing new genes into living organisms for three decades, the second insists on building, "molecule by molecule" "hybrid" machines that incorporate living elements and inert matter. and can be used industrially.
The entity chaired by Venter, IBEA, has already achieved notable successes in this field. As announced in November 2003 by the Secretary of Energy of the United States, Abraham Spencer, the Rockville scientists had already assembled "more than 5,000 blocks of DNA to create a tiny artificial virus that infects bacteria."
With this precedent, added the senior government official "in the not too distant future ... we could manufacture microscopic beings that eat carbon dioxide, others that help trees grow in eroded lands and hostile climates and create hydrogen for the vehicles that will move tomorrow. with cellular fuel ".
The prospects, then, are more than promising, but the countries of origin of these future treasures, once again, seem doomed to be left out of the dividend distribution: at most, they will see their pirated resources towards the industrialized North return, to prohibitive prices, towards the South, turned into really useful and beneficial inventions for humanity.
So that this does not happen, and so that scientific research is conducted in accordance with ethical and ecological criteria acceptable to all, the ETC group proposes as a first step an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies within the scope of the UN and a deeper involvement of civil society in debate and action regarding the direction of science and the impact of new technologies, before they get out of hand with a few ... and we all suffer the consequences.
Solidarity Information Agency