Peru, the Potato and Privatization

Among the more visible and globalized products of the Columbian Exchange is the potato. Originating in the Peruvian Andes and discovered by Westerners during Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, the potato is now a truly global crop. What would Irish and Polish food be without potatoes? Just try to imagine our world without french fries.

In 2005, six indigenous communities in Peru made a groundbreaking agreement with the International Potato Center in Cusco, which said that the potato was “patented” by these indigenous Peruvians (see story here). Spokesman Alejandro Argumedo, associate director of the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES), said:

No, this does not mean that these communities will now procure patents over these varieties of potato. These indigenous people are against patents. They represent a model of property that does not fit into their worldview. Indigenous people are used to exchanging and sharing information in open ways. But this means a legal agreement that no one else can claim intellectual property rights over their knowledge.

What interests me about this is the indigenous groups’ collective enclosure of the potato. In order to protect the potato (as a biological entity) from the likes of Monsanto (who would quickly turn it into a commodity or technology), they enclosed it. Here, then, is another example of the complexities and subtleties of enclosure: these indigenous Peruvians used enclosure to fight privatization. They collectively privatized the potato so that no one (person or coporation) could individually privatize it.

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One Comment on “Peru, the Potato and Privatization”

  1. P Says:

    Ok, assuming that we are in agreement about supporting the concept behind ANDES’ move to prevent the privatization of the potato via patent, is this tactic potentially counter-productive? Does it not establish (or at least reinforce) a precedent for ownership claims over biological entities so that other claimants (ones with far less benign motives than ANDES) can claim some rights over, say, the turnip.

    Or, on the other hand, could we assume that the only organizations with enough historical roots to make such claims would be non-commercial entities representing indigenous peoples?

    In either case, I wonder what real damage this does to a corporation like Monsanto, whose IP claim is based around the genetic manipulation of the organism which now accounts for (something like) 85% of all US corn crops. Would it be possible for, say, a Native American tribe to claim a patent on the strain of corn from which the Monsanto crop is developed and therefore nullify Monsanto’s patent because the Roundup-Ready corn is a derivative work? Or would Monsanto’s genetic tinkering still qualify as original work?

    On a sidenote – we should really get straight the differences between patent and copyright law. I feel like I am using terms for the latter to describe the former in ways that are probably wrong.

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