'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Paradoxical Struggle Between Starbucks and Ethiopia 

An interesting item from the Guardian:

Starbucks, the giant US coffee chain, has used its muscle to block an attempt by Ethiopia's farmers to copyright their most famous coffee bean types, denying them potential earnings of up to £47m a year, said Oxfam.

The development agency said the Ethiopian government last year filed copyright applications to trademark its most famous coffee names - Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe. Securing the rights to these names would enable the impoverished African country to control their use in the market and allow farmers to receive a greater share of the retail price.

The move would have increased its annual export earnings from coffee by 25%.

Apparently, after Starbucks withdrew a earlier application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for one of these varieties, Sidamo, Ethiopia attempted to obtain copyright protection for all three of them, and Starbucks objected.

It is easy to read this story as a classic instance of attempted transnational expropriation of the brand identification created by the peoples of Ethiopia, and it is certainly an accurate one. But, there is more to the story. For example, the very fact that consumers around the world apparently relate to Ethiopian coffee as a function of its brand names is noteworthy, an indication that the abstraction of the corporate business model into intellectual property, such as brand names, trade secrets and patents, has permeated even the most undeveloped countries. We are far beyond the boundaries of the branded world described by Naomi Klein in No Logo in 1996.

After all, there is something quite striking about an agricultural commodity having a substantially increased value because of the public's identification with its name. To some extent, this has always been true. I grew up in Georgia, and Vidalia onions are nationally praised for their gentle, sweet flavor. In this instance, however, economic value has been split into the components of the physical bean itself and its varietal name.

The consequences of such a subconscious consumer separation of value between commodity and varietal name is alarming, because it compels Ethiopian coffee growers to play by the rules of the neoliberal legal and economic system. As the article states: Securing the rights to these names would enable the impoverished African country to control their use in the market and allow farmers to receive a greater share of the retail price. In other words, Ethiopia could monopolize the marketing of their coffee globally by reference to the same intellectual property rights enforced by the transnationals.

Sadly, it appears that such an approach is necessary to defend against corporate predations into the world of indigenous peoples. As Vandana Shiva has written:

The expansion of "intellectual property rights" into the domain of life forms and biodiversity, and the globalisation of this regime through Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreements of GATT/WTO, has been an attempt to enclose the biological and intellectual commons. This publication is a step towards the recovery of the commons, especially for the two - thirds of India who live outside the livelihoods provided by the state and the market in what is referred to as the biodiversity based economy.

The biodiversity based economy of India represents the poorest communities in the marginalised regions. Their access to biodiversity and their use of their indigenous knowledge and skills is their primary means of livelihood security.

The "piracy" of their indigenous innovation through patents, and the diversion of their biological resources to global markets undermines the livelihoods of the two - thirds of India - women, tribals, peasants, pastoralists and fisherfolk. It also threatens the biodiversity base which they have protected because their survival has depended upon it.

The recovery of the commons for traditional communities is based on their recognition of their own rights and recognition by the state that communities have their own rights, knowledge, and values. This recognition by the formal legal systems would not give the state the right to intrude in local biodiversity utilisation patterns based on community rights, but it would create an obligation on the state to prevent external actors from "pirating" local resources and indigenous knowledge, and from imposing property rights regimes that counter community rights and cultural values.

Shiva emphasizes what she and others have described as biopiracy, the expropriation of indigenous innovation through patents, which grant the recipient the right to charge a fee for its use, but this Ethiopian episode reveals that, even if one successfully resists the seizure of the intangible value of a commodity through a patent, transnationals may now accomplish a similar objective by copyrighting the varietal names by which it is known in the marketplace.

Even worse, as already suggested, indigenous peoples must implicitly accept the terms of the neoliberal system to preserve what little has been left to them, at least as measured financially, by perfecting patents and copyrights before transnationals do so. There is no recovery of the commons, merely a more benign enclosure by Ethiopia to avoid the more pernicious one sought by Starbucks.

Hat tip to the Angry Arab for bringing the Guardian story to my attention.

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