“From market to market: Bio-prospecting’s Idioms of Inclusion” by Cori Hayden – notes and response

<apologies for the delay! here are notes from last week…>

This article is an anthropological examination of bio-prospecting, or “pharmaceutical companies’ use of ‘traditional knowledge’ as leads for developing new drugs.” (359) In this piece, Hayden takes a closer look at a particular bio-prospecting project in Mexico to reveal some of the paradoxical ways that communities are constructed as necessary contractual partners and recipients in bio-prospecting arrangements. I found this piece to be interesting, though strange because Hayden seems to do an anthropology of a bio-prospecting project without stepping back and asking some larger questions about power and property relations, and in particular the neo-colonial context in which bio-prospecting seems to operate. While some of questions of power and institutional relationships are explored in the piece, the biggest questions to me are addressed as side notes, or to provide historical context.

The main question Hayden attempts to answer relates to the impact of a new ethics of bio-prospecting, particular the idea of benefit-sharing. Recognized in 1992 at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, this new ethic was a mandate for “drug and biotechnology companies [to] share economic benefits with source nations and communities if they desire continued access to Southern resources.” (359) In this article, Hayden looks at a particular research method in Mexico to examine the paradoxical effects and new relationships and publics that are created from this injunction.  Hayden points out the ways in which “community” is abstracted and idealized, and constructed as both outside of the market and as an essential partner in contractual agreements for bio-prospecting.  Such idioms or grammars recognize certain contributors and communities while excluding others.

This emerging language is connected to larger constructions of green capitalism and sustainable development:
“The ICBG, then, like the CBD itself, belongs to the well-populated annals of “market-mediated” conservation and development initiatives that took root in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here, biodiversity-derived drugs promise not only corporate wealth, but, if harnessed and redirected through the proper redistribution mechanisms, they might well generate more biodiversity and economic prosperity in the South to boot (Eisner and Beiring 1994; World Resources Institute et al. 1993; World Resources Institute et al. 1992; see also Orlove and Brush 1996).” (361)
Here Hayden points out the neoliberal logic underlying bio-prospecting, where the market is trusted to mediate questions of ethics, of power, and of distribution of benefits.

More specifically, Hayden points out how this new ethics of benefit sharing creates and recognizes certain kinds of communities, including them in contracts; and does not recognize or compensate other forms of community and knowledge. “The NIH, in its attempts to wed drug discovery to the social goods promised by sustainable development, stands as the guardian of a somewhat romanticized local that cannot tolerate the presence of market transactions. The Mexican scientists, the very people in charge of identifying and enrolling these local participants, counter with a few powerful idealized models of their own—nationalized mixtures and obligation-free, pure market transactions.” (366-367) This benefit-sharing structure, and in particular the contracts that formalize this exchange, require the mutually exclusive, binary categories of market and community. These categories, imposed through the contract, structure relationships and identities in order to allow for the flow of material resources. Or, they exclude certain identities and relationships from being eligible for material benefits.  In particular, indigenous and communal identities are recognized to the extent that they remain pure, or uncontaminated by the market.

It seems that this idea of reciprocity, providing communities with benefits, emerges out of a history of struggle and contestation, in particular against Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) as a form of colonization and enclosure. Hayden cites how Mexico in particular sought to nationalize and thus protect traditional knowledge and biological resources in the global south.

This article also pointed towards questions of language, as did other articles this week. For example, why accept the title of bio-prospecting when what is being sought is not minerals or hidden natural resources? It seems that this name justifies the appropriation of traditional knowledge and intellectual resources of the global south by naming them as ‘natural.’ Being natural resources allows the researchers to appropriate for themselves the patents or intellectual property rights.  Others have used language such as enclosure, bio-piracy, colonization, etc.

This piece, and the conversation about green capitalism and multicultural development, connects closely with things like climate talks, free trade agreements and policy, indigenous rights and the construction of indigeneity.  In terms of bio-politics, the piece points out the ways in which our understandings of the biological, and of the connections between plant life and human life, are framed in woefully inadequate ways in contemporary capitalism.

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