Los japoneses también
Japan digs its claws into biodiversity through FTAs
Japan is increasingly using free trade agreements (FTAs) to tighten corporate control over seeds and other forms of biodiversity that are crucial to food, agriculture and medicine. Two such deals, sealed this month with the Chilean and Indonesian governments, put Japan in the big league of nations using bilateral trade deals to make seed-saving on the farm a thing of the past.
Over the past few years the Japanese government has been increasingly turning to free trade agreements to boost market opportunities for Japanese corporations and to protect the country's food and energy security interests, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. (See Table 1.) Privatisation of biological diversity is part of that agenda.
Through its FTAs, which are drawn up through closed-door negotiations, the Japanese government has been cajoling other countries to change their laws so that they provide corporations with greater freedom to operate and stronger control over their assets. One of the tactics Japan has been increasingly using is to put pressure on its trading partners to accept patents on life and to toughen up laws that enable corporations to claim ownership over seeds and thus force farmers to pay royalties. Since Japan already has a bad name for 'biopiracy', as in the famed Shiseido and Cupuaçu cases, the government's drive to make it easier for Japanese biotech companies to secure legal rights over biodiversity abroad should come as no surprise.1
It is evident that Japan has been stepping up its demands. In its first FTAs, signed with Singapore (2002) and Mexico (2004), Japan didn't even touch on the question of intellectual property rights over life. But soon after, in the FTAs negotiated with Malaysia and the Philippines, the issue began creeping on to the negotiating table. In the case of Malaysia, which inked a deal with Japan at the end of 2005, Tokyo tried to get the government to commit to the UPOV system of plant variety protection, but the Malaysians said no.2 In fact, against the overall thrust of the FTA, which gives Japanese investors equal rights to exploit Malaysian resources, Malaysia inserted a 'carve out' clause which exempts biodiversity policy-making from Japan's interference.3 But at the same time, the government did accept some abstract wording about protecting private monopoly rights over seeds "in a manner consistent with internationally harmonised system". In practice, this means UPOV. The text just doesn't say so.4
In the case of the Philippines, a joint committee made recommendations for a possible Japan-Philippines FTA back in 2003. The Japanese said any such agreement should promote plant breeders' rights. The Filipinos said it should promote farmers' rights. Japan retorted that any kind of farmers' rights would have to be consistent with UPOV. In the end, the deal they signed in September 2006 says little about any of this.5 It only pins Manila down to providing some kind of system of plant variety rights and extending it to as many species as possible, taking into account Japan's corporate interests. Not too harmful, but not harmless either.
The bigger picture
The US and Europe are no longer the only 'bad guys' pushing farmers into a bleak new landscape where huge corporations control the seeds, incessant royalties have to be paid, and rural autonomy and culture are buried.9 Japan, host to one of the top ten seed conglomerates in the world, has now joined that league. (See Table 2.) The Abe government is in a frenzy to sign more FTAs with India, Vietnam and ASEAN as whole in the coming months. As precedents have now been set in Jakarta and Santiago, Japanese pressure on these countries to join UPOV should be expected.
Still, this is not only about Japanese interests. The old world view where 'the North' is the villain and 'the South' is the victim hardly makes sense anymore. It's even increasingly impossible to distinguish between state and corporate interests in all this free-trade wheeling and dealing. Malaysian plantation barons, like Sime Darby, or fast expanding Thai agribusiness groups, like Charoen Pokphand (CP), surely weren't crying over their governments' FTAs with Japan. As Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Biothai, puts it, "It's clear that CP needs the UPOV system, same as Japan. CP tried to push UPOV for years before the JTEPA [Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement] negotiations began. We even faced difficulty with the Thai negotiators handling JTEPA, because they often preferred to use CP's position rather than that of the Thai farmers."10 In Indonesia, companies like PT Fitotek and East West Seed have long been lobbying the government to adopt strong plant monopoly laws such as UPOV.11 Like other Asian and Latin American transnational corporations, they too have plenty to gain from the privatisation of biodiversity through these trade deals. After all, some 70% of the world's farmers still save their seeds year to year. That's a lot of people to convert into paying customers.
The tightening up of intellectual property ropes around seeds, medicinal plants, micro-organisms and even traditional knowledge will only boost the profits of large firms which control the world's commodity trade. It is not farmers who should be criminalised for saving seeds, but these corporations for forcing through such terrible laws.