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What is Psychedelic Justice?

What is Psychedelic Justice?

As psychedelics integrate into dominant culture, the question of what forces will shape the direction of the psychedelic renaissance is front and center. Those of us who believe that psychedelics can help transform society by allowing us to operate out of the sense of interconnectedness they inspire are being challenged to define and embody, the values that drive this growing movement. 

In the past few years, the term “psychedelic justice” has surfaced in a multitude of psychedelic spaces as a lens for addressing deep-rooted injustices within the community, and cultivating a movement that serves the needs of everyone – particularly those who have been historically marginalized and oppressed.  

In this spirit, the upcoming anthology Psychedelic Justice: Toward a Diverse and Equitable Psychedelic Culture, edited by Bia Labate and Clancy Cavnar, compiles essays written for the Chacruna Institute that examine a myriad of issues facing the psychedelic community through the lens of psychedelic justice, and offer solutions for mending them. Among the wide spectrum of topics explored in this anthology are diversity and inclusion, reciprocity, abuses of power within psychedelic spaces, policy, sustainability, capitalism, and colonialism. 

Below are some instances of the term’s usage, and is by no means an exhaustive list of when and how the notion of psychedelic justice resonates.

Psychedelics and Drug Policy 

Back in 2017, Jag Davies, at the time the communications director for the Drug Policy Alliance, used the lens of psychedelic justice to discuss why decriminalization is a necessary step towards repairing the harms of the drug war, which has incarcerated thousands of people yearly for using psychedelic substances, and disproportionately impacts “young, nonwhite and socioeconomically marginalized” people. 

As research into the therapeutic benefits of these medicines becomes legitimized, heading towards legal medicines for those who have access, the notion of psychedelic justice begs the question that Davies posed: 

“What would it mean if we end up in a world where psychedelics are legally accessible for a privileged few, while communities who have historically suffered the worst harms of prohibition remain criminalized? For social change to be truly transformational, mustn’t it lift up those who are the least privileged among us?”

Since 2019, movements to reform drug policy have sprung up across the country, and psychedelics have been decriminalized in Oakland, Washington, DC, Santa Cruz, Somerville, Ann Arbor, Cambridge, and the state of Oregon, with currently active decriminalization bills and ballot initiatives in motion across the country. Many of these movements have broadened their scope to include all drugs, not just psychedelics, a move that aims to dismantle psychedelic exceptionalism and the hierarchy of drug users, and seeks to protect all forms of altered consciousness. 

Capitalism and Psychedelics 

The question of what values are shaping this renaissance is of particular concern regarding the booming psychedelic industry, which is projected to reach $10.75 billion by 2027. What does it look like when psychedelics enter a competitive market whose strictly profit-driven logic dictates that ruthless competition trumps the spirit of open-sharing and cooperation? 

Historically, psychedelics have been researched and developed by those in the underground – the “outlaws,” as Erik Davis puts it in his essay “Capitalism on Psychedelics.” The “writers, healers, freaks, and wizards” who made up the underground and gathered at psychedelic conferences oriented themselves around the values of sharing information, mutual respect, and operating out of service for the community of substance users, explains Davis. 

Today, the emergence of psychedelic companies that operate in the traditionally capitalist spirit of snuffing out competitors and monopolizing a profitable product is enormously troubling to many in the psychedelic community who align with the values described by Davis, including Johns Hopkins researcher Bob Jesse, who spoke about the merging of psychedelics and capitalism at the 2018 “Cultural and Political Perspectives on Psychedelic Science.”  

“When given under propitious circumstances—with a measure of grace,” Jesse said of psychedelics, “some would say they fairly reliably lead to experiences which are frequently beyond words and frequently change lives. When that phenomenon occurs, it is my wish that that happens in the best possible, cleanest space, being held by people who are very clear about their motives.”

Psychedelics and Reciprocity 

While some companies profit off psychedelics, they lack, as Celina De Leon writes on Chacruna, “any clear channel for reciprocity toward Indigenous and traditional communities where these practices originate.” The ritual knowledge surrounding these sacraments is foundational to Indigenous communities in the Americas that continue to this day and inform the Western medical perspective of psychedelics. 

“The very protocols that exist today draw upon many of the perspectives and insights that leaders in the field experienced while engaging with these substances, either directly with Indigenous communities or in so-called ‘underground’ settings,” writes De Leon. Directly supporting projects that are “indigenous-led or facilitated by individuals that have long-standing relationships in indigenous and traditional plant medicine communities is a great step,” suggests Leon, who points to these initiatives

Listening to Indigenous voices is crucial as we continue to benefit from the plant medicines that play an integral role in their traditions. This has been made abundantly clear in the realm of drug policy, where the justice of decriminalization is complicated by the issue of peyote scarcity, which affects the Indigenous communities for whom the cactus has served as an ritual sacrament for centuries. 

The National Council of Native American Churches (NCANC) and the Board of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) definitively voiced their stance on the matter in a 2020 statement, saying that due the peyote shortage, which is impacted by the peyote black market and unsustainable harvesting practices, peyote should not be included in decriminalization efforts, which would likely lead to further destructive behavior. 

As they write in their statement, “For non-native persons who want to avail themselves of relationships with entheogenic healing medicines that don’t harm the very fragile peyote population in south Texas or disrespect the spiritual and cultural norms of our Indigenous peoples, they should look for alternative medicines.

Prejudice and Abuse within Psychedelic Spaces

Although the psychedelic experience may contribute to increased empathy towards others, psychedelic communities are not immune to prejudice and abuse. Now, as society faces a reckoning for the oppression and abuse that marginalized groups have faced for decades, the psychedelic community, too, is being tasked to co its own shadow side, and address these inequities. 

Up until recently, the public face of Western psychedelic discourse has been dominated by white men. While the likes of Terence McKenna, Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts are formidable voices, a movement whose representation reflects the same biases of Western society at large, can only be stunted by such a limitation in the long run, as it only reinforces the same age-old structural inequities. Whether conscious or unconscious, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are still prevalent and are structurally embedded within these communities. 

Psychedelic science, for example, is still plagued by a lack of diversity and representation, both among researchers and participants. “People of color and women are uncommon in leadership positions in the psychedelic research community,” write clinical psychologist Monnica T. Williams and Chacruna founder Bia Labate in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, “and few people of color are included as research participants in psychedelic studies.”

And as psychologist and psychedelic researcher Alex Belser points out, psychedelic research is still informed by heternormative stereotypes about gender roles, with research from past 15 years treating cisgender, straight people as the default.

Although it is exciting to witness the culmination of decades of drug policy advocacy and clinical research, the psychedelic science movement struggles with many of the same social issues that plague healthcare in general,” write Williams and Labate.

Psychedelic spaces are not immaculate respites from abusive behavior, either. Sexual abuse at the hands of shamans in traditional ceremonial contexts is unfortunately not uncommon, with a number of individuals sharing their accounts of being sexually exploited by someone they entrusted with their healing journey. Even in clinical psychedelic therapy, sexual abuse is not unheard of. 

It may be difficult to reconcile the bathed-in-pure-love sensation of a psychedelic experience with abusive, toxic behavior at the hands of those facilitating it, especially when they are perceived as being part of a more spiritually evolved tradition. 

Increasing awareness of sexual abuse and exploitation by ayahuasqueros and other healers has been disconcerting for the psychedelic community, where ‘shamans’ are often idealized and romanticized,” writes somatic sex educator Britta Love on Chacruna. “The medicalization of psychedelics will no doubt mean we soon find our legitimized Western psychedelic gatekeepers just as imperfect as their indigenous and underground counterparts.”

***

“If the psychedelic renaissance is to grow and be able to bring healing and benefits for humanity, it has to include everybody,” shared Labate at the 2019 Bioneers Conference. 

Her words reflect a core essence of psychedelic justice: the commitment to transmuting the blissful oneness felt by any one individual during their psychedelic journey into an enduring ethical compass with which they navigate and serve their communities, and the values they are unwilling to compromise as the psychedelic movement grows. 

 

***

More about Psychedelic Justice 

Cover of Psychedelic JusticeRadical, cultural transformation is the guiding force behind this socially visionary anthology. Its unifying value is social justice. It guides us in cultivating a psychedelic renaissance that represents everyone, honors voices that have been suppressed for too long, and envisions a more beautiful tomorrow through a psychedelic lens.

Psychedelic Justice highlights Chacruna’s ongoing work promoting diversity and inclusion by prominently featuring voices that have long been marginalized in Western psychedelic culture: women, queer people, people of color, and indigenous people. The essays examine both historical and current issues within psychedelics that many may not know about, and orient around policy, reciprocity, diversity and inclusion, sex and power, colonialism, and indigenous concerns. We believe the book can be another tool to help Chacruna and its allies continue to push for justice and inclusion in the greater psychedelic culture.

Get your copy

Should Psychedelic Therapists Have Psychedelic Experience?

Should Psychedelic Therapists Have Psychedelic Experience?

Psychedelics are front and center of a new and rapidly growing medical industry that recognizes their profound healing potential. More and more people are taking psychedelics in clinical settings, with trained therapists guiding them through unpredictable terrain, helping them process and heal their wounds. 

However, as psychedelics become medicalized we are urged to explore the question: should a therapist have personal experience with psychedelics before working with clients who are on psychedelics? 

For those who’ve taken psychedelics and understand how utterly strange (and at times immensely challenging) the experience can be, the answer may feel like an obvious yes. While each psychedelic experience is unique, the thread that binds virtually all of them is their ineffability. Trusting someone to help you navigate that space can be difficult if they haven’t occupied it themselves. 

But as psychedelics intersect with western science, intuition alone cannot satisfy modern medicine’s inquiries around efficacy and safety. One possible solution is that space must be made for the perspectives of indigenous communities who’ve worked with psychedelic medicines for time immemorial and understand them in ways that transcend western epistemological frameworks. 

Western Medicine and Psychedelic Therapy

COMPASS Pathways, a UK-based mental healthcare company working with synthetic psilocybin, states on their website that therapists are not recruited based on their “willingness or desire” to take psychedelics. According to COMPASS, until evidence suggests otherwise, the best predictors of safety and optimal clinical outcomes are emotional maturity, compassion, and clinical therapeutic experience.

So far, there is no evidence within western medicine that suggests otherwise. Arguably, it is for lack of trying. As Elizabeth M. Nielson, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Guss, MD write in their article “Should Psychedelic Therapists Have First-hand Experience with Psychedelics?” for Chacruna, “no contemporary studies have systematically studied whether or how therapists’ first-hand experience with psychedelics affects clinical outcomes in psychedelic therapy.” 

When psychedelic therapy first garnered interest from medical practitioners in the mid-20th century, shortly after Albert Hofmann discovered LSD in 1943, researchers and clinicians “stressed the value of direct experience with a psychedelic compound” in order to be successful as psychedelic therapists, write Nielson and Guss. Hofmann wrote that first-hand experience would allow the therapist to truly understand the “strange world of LSD inebriation” and its related phenomena in their patients. 

But due to restrictive drug laws in the 1960s, and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, conducting those studies became virtually impossible. Psychiatrist and substance abuse researcher Herbert Kleber came the closest in the mid-60s when he designed a study that would compare the outcomes in patients undergoing LSD-assisted therapy treated by a therapist that had taken LSD themselves versus a therapist who hadn’t. The study was cut short when the Swiss laboratory Sandoz halted LSD production in 1965. 

Should Doctors Have Direct Experience with Psychiatric Drugs They Prescribe?

Today, with the mainstreaming of psychedelics and their burgeoning reputation as legitimate therapeutic medicines, questions around what constitutes effective psychedelic therapy can be more formally investigated. But the unique nature of psychedelic therapy, which, as Nielson and Guss write, is an “unprecedented blend of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches,” doesn’t fit squarely with the already established western medical models. 

Contemporary psychiatry does not necessitate that a doctor has direct experience with any psychotropic medication they prescribe to patients. It’s a standard that, according to Nielson and Gus, hasn’t been fully examined. They say that as of June 2018, they were “unable to locate a single study on the relationship between psychiatrists’ personal use of pharmaceutical substances, their prescribing practices with psychotropic medicines, and/or effects on patient outcomes.” 

Furthermore, in the 1960s, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), in which a treatment is randomly allocated to participants and isolated from the doctors prescribing them, became the “gold-standard” for demonstrating the efficacy of pharmacological treatments. While this approach may be effective with drugs such as antibiotics, Nielson and Guss say that psychiatric medicine, in particular psychedelic therapy, are “poor fits” for the RTC research method because of the psychotherapeutic intervention involved. 

While psychoanalytic research and training values subjective personal experience, and doesn’t see it as potentially invalidating any research, pharmacological research values objectivity, and excludes personal experience as a source of knowledge. The “dual nature” of psychedelic therapy has generated “controversy regarding the relevance, importance, and danger of self-experimentation in the current psychedelic research,” write Nielson and Guss. 

Decolonizing Psychedelic Science

Healing with psychedelic substances is not exactly the uncharted territory of intrepid western researchers. Indigenous peoples have been the stewards of these medicines for centuries, and there exist rich traditions amongst various lineages involving the ceremonial use of plant medicines, in which shamans commune with plants as sacred sacraments. COMPASS’s claim that psychedelic therapists don’t necessarily need to be familiar with psychedelic modes of consciousness stands in stark contrast to traditional contexts in which only the shaman ingests the plant medicine.

As shamanic practitioner, Itzhak Beery, writes in his article “Are You Drinking Ayahuasca for the Wrong Reason?” for Lucid News, in some traditional contexts the shaman alone drinks the ayahuasca brew so that they may enter the “other world” and identify their patient’s ailment by penetrating both their physical and energetic bodies, clearing dark energies often with the aid of spirit animal helpers. Spirit worlds, energetic bodies, and animal guides are hardly the province of western science, a paradigm that fundamentally rejects intuitive wisdom in favor of rational, empirical knowledge. In her paper “The role of Indigenous knowledge in psychedelic science,” published by the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, Evgenia Fotiou writes that “in most cultural settings where ayahuasca is used, it is seen as an intentional agent, indeed a ‘plant teacher’, something that cannot easily be reconciled with scientific epistemology without broadening our lens.”

While western medicine enthusiastically embraces psychedelics, many believe we would be wise to meaningfully engage with indigenous perspectives, rather than uncritically appropriating these medicines into the current western framework, erasing those traditions. Fotiou argues that decolonizing psychedelic science “disrupts the legacies of colonialism and the systematic oppression of Indigenous peoples,” and could enhance western research efforts by widening its lens. For Fotiou, dismantling the hierarchy of knowledge systems that privileges western science above all others could allow for different perspectives and methodologies to coexist and contribute equally to psychedelic science going forward.

If this vision shared by Fotiou and many others is put into practice, it could help shed light on the tensions surrounding psychedelic therapy, and the challenges these medicines pose for the currently accepted medical standards. In the meantime, as Nielson and Guss suggest, the influence firsthand psychedelic experience has amongst psychedelic therapists and researchers deserves further investigation.

Image via Wikicommons: Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Session Room

Ecofeminism: Women’s Rights are Nature’s Rights

Ecofeminism: Women’s Rights are Nature’s Rights

What is Ecofeminism? 

Ecofeminism is a branch of feminism that recognizes the relationship between the destruction of the environment, and the marginalization of women. According to ecofeminists, the exploitation of nature and the oppression of women are inextricably connected, symptoms of the same foundational energy: masculine dominion and exertion of power.  

One of the strongest cases for this assertion can be found in the very words of the “Father of Modern Science” himself, Francis Bacon. Bacon, a major figure of the scientific revolution, is credited with developing the scientific method. 

Around the end of the 16th century, Bacon wrote at great length about human dominion over nature in a manner that squarely identifies nature as feminine and the pursuit of knowledge as masculine. In an excerpt from Restoring the Soul of the World: Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence, author David Fideler examines the “shocking” imagery Bacon uses to illustrate how humans would subjugate nature.

Of his proposed scientific method of inquiry, Bacon said it wouldn’t “merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course,” but would “have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.” As a result, nature would be rendered the “slave of mankind,” ushering in a “truly masculine birth of time,” will be ushered in.

As Fideler points out, Bacon seems guided by the notion that the “only reason for experimentation in the first place is to gain power over the world.” 

Colonial Rejection of Nature As a Goddess

Bacon was not the only scientist of his time to view nature as a conquest. 

In the Yes Magazine article “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Forest,” ecofeminist and environmental advocate Vandana Shiva uses Robert Boyle, a 17th-century chemist and governor of the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the New England Indians, as an example of how indigenous perspectives on nature were suppressed by colonizers. She writes: 

He attacked their perception of nature “as a kind of goddess” and argued that “the veneration, wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.”

For Shiva, this worldview transforms the earth from a vibrant, living being, to “dead matter” that justifies the exploitation and manipulation of nature. “After all,” she writes, “if the Earth is merely dead matter, then nothing is being killed.” 

This notion of separateness between man and nature turned earth into “empty land, ready for occupation,” paving the way for the Industrial and Green Revolutions. 

The Masculinization of Agriculture 

Agriculture and the rise of sedentary villages and towns were feminine creations. But civilization and warfare were not; they spelled the end for the Great Mother.  William Erwin Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture

In rural farming communities, women are the primary custodians of crop varieties. In her essay “Monoculture, Monopolies, Myths and the Masculinization of Agriculture,” Shiva writes that “women farmers have been the seed keepers and seed breeders for over millennia,” and play a central role as “knowers, producers, and providers of food.” 

Today, agricultural globalization has allowed for multinational corporations to gain control of land, knowledge, and innovation belonging to indigenous communities, and the women at the forefront, in developing countries. Biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto destroy biodiversity in these communities through monocropping, the practice of growing large amounts of a single crop in a field, which has been shown to have detrimental effects on the land. They have replaced renewable, diverse seed varieties with GMOs and hybrid seeds. 

Through Intellectual Property Right systems, which favor Western notions of private property, corporations patent and monopolize seeds and traditional knowledge systems that those communities have relied on for decades, destroying the livelihoods of farmers in the process. 

From the ecofeminist perspective, this maltreatment of the earth and its stewards is a feminist concern. Genetic engineering and Intellectual Property Right regimes will rob Third World women of their “creativity, innovation and decision-making power in agriculture” says Shiva. In their book Ecofeminism, Shiva and Maria Mies say that it is the “same masculinist mentality which would deny us our right to our own bodies and our own sexuality, and which depends on multiple systems of dominance and state power to have its way.” 

Shiva characterizes agricultural globalization as masculine due to the “war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture.” The destruction of biodiversity and farmers’ rights to exchange and share seeds is intrinsically violent, she argues, against “nature’s biodiversity and women’s expertise.” 

The Western worldview equates femininity with passivity, and therefore something to be dominated, says Shiva in her book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. But in the Third World, women and nature are “associated not in passivity but in creativity and the maintenance of life,” she writes. 

Western women, who lack the harmonious communion with nature their Third World sisters experience, may find it difficult to “perceive commonality between their own liberation and the liberation of nature,” write Shiva and Mies. The Western women’s movement still operates within a capitalist, patriarchal paradigm, fastening its “hopes on the progress of science and technology.” 

Reclaiming the Commons

Dr. Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, farmers, and small communities. Since the mid-90s, she has promoted traditional knowledge and livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. She is the founder of Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers that provide training in sustainable agriculture. 

Reclaiming the Commons is the latest in over 20 books authored by Shiva on biopiracy and environmental justice. It presents details on the specific attempts made by corporations to secure patents on nature, and the legal action taken against them. It is the first detailed legal history of the international and national laws related to biodiversity and international property rights.

Learn more

Sources

https://womenjusticeecology.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/dr-vandana-shiva-and-feminist-theory/

http://www.compilerpress.ca/ElementalEconomics/Articles/Shiva%20Monocultures,%20Monopolies,%20Myths%20and%20the%20Masculinization%20of%20Agriculture%201999.pdf

http://www.thesouloftheworld.com/the-new-experiment-putting-nature-on-the-rack/

https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/nature/2019/05/03/vandana-shiva-seed-saving-forest-biodiversity/

Image credit: Bernard Gagnon

Observing Earth Day 2020 During a Global Pandemic

Observing Earth Day 2020 During a Global Pandemic

The Oil Spill that Inspired Earth Day

On January 28, 1969, crude oil and gas erupted from a platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, spilling out into the Pacific waters. It blackened over 800 square miles of ocean, killing thousands of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in history. Today, it is topped by only two other oil spills and remains the worst California’s waters have seen. 

1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Earth Day 2020 | Synergetic Press

The devastating event’s one silver lining was that it served as a catalyst for a widespread and enduring campaign promoting environmental awareness. After the spill, Gaylord Nelson, an environmentally-conscious Wisconsin senator, realized that public awareness around industrial technology’s impact on the planet needed a serious boost. Harnessing the anti-war protest energy of the 60s, he, along with a Republican congressman, a young Harvard graduate, and a team of 85 people, organized a national “teach-in” to take place on April 22, 1970. 

It was the first official Earth Day. Twenty million people took to the streets to protest humanity’s destructive behavior towards the environment. In the 50 years since its inception, Earth Day has served as a celebration of our planet and raises public awareness around pollution with events and activist initiatives coordinated worldwide. 

Our Collective Carbon Footprint

For Earth Day 2020, activists planned to celebrate the theme of “Climate Action” by organizing The Great Global Cleanup, a day dedicated to removing trash from green space and urban centers. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, and the ensuing government mandates to socially distance and stay indoors, Earth Day convergences are going digital (much like everything else). 

The pandemic is a tragedy. However, like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, there is a silver lining to this devastating global crisis. While modern society stumbles over itself after coming to a screeching halt, the earth has a chance to breathe again. With non-essential establishments closing their doors, major airports “eerily silent,” and most people self-confining at home, our collective carbon footprint has significantly decreased. 

Clear waters in Venice canals. Photo by Marco Capovilla. Earth Day 2020 | Synergetic Press

The Guardian reports that “global carbon emission could fall by 2.5bn tonnes this year, a reduction of 5%, as the coronavirus pandemic triggers the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels on record.” Satellites detect a drop in nitrogen-oxide emissions in China, and lower air pollution in Italy. And for the first time in recent history, the normally smog-battered skies of Los Angeles are clear and bright. An interactive map created by Earther provides a staggering visual of how much air pollution has dropped across the globe from December 2019 to March 2020. One YouTuber, PLANET NOW, posted a video showing before-and-after shots of Venice canals – once murky and green, now a limpid blue – suggesting we can maintain these conditions by reducing tourism and working from home more.

The Pandemic Slows Down Industrial Society

Things aren’t just cleaner – they’re quieter too. For those living in industrial society, slowed-down living may revitalize their relationship to the planet. Rebecca Franks, an American living in Wuhan, posted to Facebook about life in quarantine, saying: “Right now I hear birds outside my window. I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people.” 

Michelle Fournet, a marine ecologist studying acoustic environments, tells The Atlantic that since the suspension of the cruise ship industry, “we’re experiencing an unprecedented pause in ocean noise that probably hasn’t been experienced in decades.” According to research, maritime activity (including military sonar, seismic surveys, oil drilling, dredging and ship engines) causes stress and physical damage to sea animals, altering their behavior and communication systems. 

Meanwhile, pictures and videos of wild animals traversing empty towns and cities are circulating widely on social media. Mountain goats blithely stroll the streets of Wales. A deer in Japan curiously peeks inside a restaurant window. A family of geese waltz down the center of Las Vegas Boulevard. Could the popularity of these kinds of posts speak to an underlying, collective yearning to witness mother nature  “reboot” herself, as two Twitter users put it? 

***

The pandemic has stirred the whole world into unified action in the way that other very real threats to humanity have not – namely, climate change. Decades of activist efforts to influence human activity have not been able to match COVID-19’s galvanizing effect. Now that humanity’s impact on the planet is more tangible than ever, it may be the perfect time to emphasize environmental awareness. While the usual celebration is not in order for this year’s Earth Day, we can observe its theme of “Climate Action” by reflecting on how, and why, our planet feels a little brighter, and what we might do to sustain that going forward. 

Celebrating Earth Day 2020 Online 

Join the Earth Day Network this April 22nd for Earth Day Live (starting at 9:00 AM ET-8:00 PM ET). Earth Day Live will flood the digital landscape with global conversations, calls to action, performances, and video teach-ins with the goal of mobilizing a stop to the climate emergency.

At 2:00 PM ET Dr. Silvia Earle, marine biologist, explorer, and writer of the foreword to Life Under Glass:  will be speaking, followed by a virtual Q&A featuring biospherians Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, and Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolfe. 

Tune into Earth Day Live

Earth Day 2020 preview of the new documentary film, Spaceship Earth

The film Spaceship Earth chronicles the true, stranger-than-fiction adventure of eight visionaries who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2. As the current pandemic forces us to confront the fact that the narratives that inform our modern-day existence do not serve us, this tale of dreamers reimagining a new world may inspire our own vision of the future.
Spaceship Earth will be released on May 8. Watch the trailer above.
Biopiracy: When Corporations Patent Nature

Biopiracy: When Corporations Patent Nature

Since the early 20th century, multinational corporations have repeatedly claimed ownership of nature and indigenous knowledge systems from developing countries by means of patents, turning the biodiversity of the commons into private, commercialized property. This appropriation of indigenous resources for financial gain, with scarcely any recognition or compensation, is just one of the latest forms of colonialism, the centuries-old practice of affluent, technologically advanced nations exerting economic dominance over poorer, resource-rich countries. 

In the upcoming Synergetic Press title Reclaiming the Commons: Biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge, and the Rights of Mother Earth, environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva lays out in great detail the legal struggle to defend biodiversity against biopiracy and biocolonialism. 

Vandana Shiva at a 1993 rally protesting GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in Bangalore

What is biopiracy? 

Biopiracy is when a corporation patents seeds and/or indigenous knowledge, gaining exclusive control over those materials. 

Through intellectual property laws created by Western nations, they can legally lay claim on plants and traditional applications of knowledge, despite the fact they have not innovated or invented anything. The burden of proof then lies on the affected community, which often does not possess the resources or legal knowledge to contest the claims. 

One glaring example of biopiracy the case of the neem tree, which has been an invaluable, “cure-all” resource in India for centuries, and can be sourced back to a number of ancient texts. One of its applications was agricultural – a potent insecticide, neem was fed to livestock to increase soil fertility. 

In the 20th century, the general American public became increasingly skeptical towards synthetic pesticides. Naturally, this sparked a corporate interest in neem, with the industry seeing lucrative potential in its natural appeal for American consumers. Since 1985, over a dozen US patents have been taken out on neem-based solutions and emulsions. As a result, prices skyrocketed, depriving local farmers of access to their traditional plant material, and making them dependent on the company owning the patent. 

Another example of biopiracy: a poster by Navdanya, an Indian-based non-governmental organization that promotes biodiversity conservation cofounded by Vandana Shiva, protesting corporations’ patent of rice.

Effects of biopiracy

Thanks to Western intellectual property right systems (IPRs), corporations (mostly pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies) have been able to scour biodiversity-rich countries for their resources and traditional knowledge, and gain exclusive monopoly rights to anything with commercial value via patent laws. This effectively restricts those communities from access to biological resources that have been part of their cultural heritage for centuries. 

Biopiracy has drastically affected the livelihood of farmers, who are cut off from the seeds they’ve relied on for centuries. Farmers are no longer allowed to exchange seed as they used to since that is now a crime under intellectual property laws. They are forced to buy seed from these corporations, rather than saving it, and generate profits for them. According to Shiva, most of the 300,000 farmer suicides in India happened as a result of Monsanto’s falsely claiming patents on cotton, and trapping farmers in debt through cotton royalties. 

It also has a destructive effect on the environment. Often, the biodiversity of the affected regions become eroded due to practices like monocropping, the practice of growing large amounts of a single crop on the same land. While this may be economically fruitful, it does not provide the diversity needed for a healthy diet or ecosystem. 

Hierarchy of knowledge systems

Throughout the long history of colonialism, and into the present day, Westerners have regarded indigenous knowledge systems of medicine and agriculture as primitive and inferior. Hundreds of years of rich and diverse traditional medicine systems, like Ayurveda, homeopathy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, are dismissed as unscientific – unless, of course, their knowledge is found to be useful, in which case they are appropriated and legitimized without credit. 

There also exists a fundamental tension between Western and indigenous ideas around ownership. Private property is a keystone of Western society. Traditional IPRs, which are shaped by major Western nations, reflect this individualistic value system and work in favor of corporations that seek to monopolize and control any resource that turns a profit. In contrast, indigenous perspectives are more communally oriented, recognizing the land and water to be a sacred heritage shared by everyone. 

The national sovereignty and basic needs of these regions are compromised in the name of free trade and commerce. The World Trade Organization, an intergovernmental organization that regulates international trade, has created systems of law that benefit the multinational corporations, and harm small communities. 

In this 2003 Guardian article, Shiva writes: 

The trade-related intellectual property rights (Trips) agreement is the most far-reaching of all the WTO agreements and threatens to hurt us most. It has changed the law related to patents, copyright, design, and trademarks from national to global levels and redefined vital issues of farmers’ rights to seeds and citizens’ rights to medicine as trade issues. It has also expanded patentability to cover life forms, even though living organisms are not invention. For the US, which forced the changes through, these were matters of commerce. For us, intellectual property rights are matters of national sovereignty and basic needs.

Defending against biopiracy 

There have been some positive steps made towards defending against biopiracy. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty signed in 1993, was created with the goal of “conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.” 

Since then, there have been two supplementary agreements made to the convention. One is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, effective 2003, which “aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity.” The other is the Nagoya Protocol, effective 2014, which “aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way.”

There have also been legal cases between corporations and indigenous people in which the latter were ruled in favor. 

In 2019, PepsiCo sued 4 farmers for 10 million rupees each for growing a variety of potatoes registered by the company. They claimed their intellectual property rights were being infringed upon under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001. However, according to the actual details of the act, the farmers were well within their rights to harvest the seed. Pepsico used false claims and intimidation tactics to nearly ruin the lives of farmers who earned a fraction of what they were being sued for annually. 

Reclaiming the Commons

Dr. Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, farmers, and small communities. Since the mid-90s, she has promoted traditional knowledge and livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. She is the founder of Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers that provide training in sustainable agriculture. 

Reclaiming the Commons is the latest in over 20 books authored by Shiva on biopiracy and environmental justice. It presents details on the specific attempts made by corporations to secure patents on nature, and the legal action taken against them. It is the first detailed legal history of the international and national laws related to biodiversity and international property rights. 

Learn more about Reclaiming the Commons


Sources

The neem tree – a case history of biopiracy
by Vandana Shiva
https://twn.my/title/pir-ch.htm

Points of Law in the Pepsico Potato Case

https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/points-of-law-in-the-pepsico-potato-case/article27060326.ece#

Biocolonialism: Examining Biopiracy, Inequality, and Power
by Ashleigh Breske

https://spectrajournal.org/articles/10.21061/spectra.v6i2.a.6/

Living on the Frontline
by Vandana Shiva

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2003/sep/08/wto.fairtrade8

The Convention on Biological Diversity

https://www.cbd.int/convention/

Seeds of Sustenance & Freedom vs Seeds of Suicide & Surveillance 

https://www.navdanya.org/bija-refelections/2019/09/07/seed-of-sustenance-freedom-vs-seeds-of-suicide-surveillance/

Protect or Plunder: Understanding Intellectual Property Rights by Vandana Shiva
https://www.amazon.com/Protect-Plunder-Understanding-Intellectual-Property/dp/1842771094

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