On colonialism, bioprospecting and biopiracy


Image taken from www.thelondoneveningpost.com

You’ve probably heard of “the scramble for Africa” but I’ll explain/write a little about it nevertheless :)

Back in the late 1800′s, several of the (larger) European powers got together in Berlin in what is now known as the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. The intent/goal was to decide on  how to divide Africa among the European powers. No one really cared how the people living in the various regions of Africa felt about being invaded and colonized, but I think it is safe to say that they weren’t thrilled about it. The division went (roughly) like this: The Brits wanted the stretch from Cape to Cairo (that is, from the very southern tip of the continent to the north of Africa) and the French aimed to get the area stretching from the east of Africa to the west (guess what happened where the desired territories overlapped?). A few other countries also got into it. Here’s a (rough) breakdown: Germany took Namibia and a few other countries in west, east and central Africa. Italy took some of the regions of northern and eastern Africa. Portugal took Angola, Mozambique and some of the islands off of the coast. Spain took parts of Morocco, Western Sahara, Equatorial Guinea and a few more areas. Belgium took what is now known as The Democratic Republic of Congo.

Pic taken from itiscannizzaro.net

Pic taken from itiscannizzaro.net

Listing these countries makes it appear as though they were distinct countries prior to colonization. Most were not. The borders were drawn up by the European colonizers, and this had huge and frequently very harmful consequences to the people living there. Many of the colonizers were awfully abusive towards the indigenous population, and when they weren’t abusive, they were patronizing.

I’ll get to the point though. The Europeans faced a number of problems in occupying Africa, one being malaria. Malaria is caused by a parasite called plasmodium. Plasmodium is transmitted through mosquito-spittle, it can be lethal, and the Europeans were dying like flies. The indigenous Africans could (to a certain extent) deal with the illness. Some got ill, but some had a form of genetic protection against the disease. A fair number of Africans have what is called sickle cell anemia. Sickle cell anemia shortens peoples life-spans, it causes fatigue and produces symptoms similar to those of pneumonia (among a slew of other problems). It also offers protection against malaria for some reason; Weird eh?

Anyway, European imperialists were not only active in Africa, they had (earlier) made their way to both North, Central and South America. Now, in the Andes mountains, there is a tree called the Cinchona tree, and the Spanish conquistadors (along with some Jesuit priests) noticed that despite malaria being present in the region, the indigenous Quechua people were not getting ill. They didn’t all have sickle-cell anemia either, they had just figured out that the bark of the Cinchona was effective in treating malaria. The bark contains an alkaloid called quinine. Quinine is effective against a range of ailments, but it’s most remarkable attribute (I think) is that it can be used to treat malaria. This leads me to the point, namely bioprospecting and biopiracy. Bioprospecting is when we seek out and commercialize biological resources (be it plants, venoms or other stuff found in nature). Biopiracy is when we take that same stuff, commercialize it and don’t care to pay those who helped us find it. When the Jesuit priests (who tagged along with the conquistadors) took the bark of the Cinchona tree back to Europe and sold it to those who lived in areas where malaria was present, they were engaging in bioprospecting and biopiracy. This practice has gone on for a very long time, and the majority of the “stuff” has been found in regions we currently call the global South. Now, imagine if  Peru & Bolivia had been given back pay for all the lives quinine has saved? That’d be a lot of money.. Same goes for the Cape Pelargonium. The Cape Pelargonium was/is used by indigenous Africans and was stolen and marketed by the German ‘pharmaceutical company’ Schwabe (it is used in AIDS-treatment and for bronchitis/respiratory ailments).

So to come full circle; the reason Europeans were able to colonize Africa was because of Quinine, a medicine stolen from a group in another faraway land. When we wonder “why are they so poor still, it has been well over a 100 years?!” this theft and our unwillingness to pay for ‘third world’ knowledge, resources and labour might be a few of the many reasons.

In other news, it is Saturday evening and writing this is probably the most exciting thing I’ll be doing today.

I’m a rebel!

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