by GRAIN | 2 Mar 1999

March 1999


The World Trade Organisation's (WTO) now infamous 1999 review of the exemptions from intellectual property protection for certain plant and animal inventions (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights [TRIPS] Article 27.3b) is now underway - in theory, at least.  Progress is painfully slow, with the Quad countries (the European Union [EU], USA, Japan and Canada) trying to turn the review into simply an assessment of hiw implementation is going (see Seedling, December 1998, p 20).

Some WTO representatives and observers are increasingly talking about the Review merely "starting" this year (using the excuse that Art 27.3b doesn't state when the Review should end!).  Quad members, in particular, are stalling to avoid having to do any real negotiating until after the next Ministerial Conference, the highest WTO body, at the end of the year. The widely differing positions of member countries regarding Article 27.3b makes for some challenging negotiating.  The industrialised North, led by the US, would like to have no exemptions to patentability, while many countries in the South would prefer to ban biodiversity from TRIPS. Yet neither North or South is united enough to achieve these positions.

Although action is sluggish at the TRIPS Council, other IPR arenas are very active at the moment.  Both the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) could undermine any equitable treatment of biodiversity issues in TRIPS.  UPOV recently organised seminars to push African and Asian countries towards the UPOV-style of sui generis plant protection.  If this move is successful, a first step in the TRIPS Review could be forcing UPOV or similar standards on all WTO members.  And it seems that UPOV's lobbying efforts are being quite fruitful: Francophone African countries are talking about joining the UPOV 91 agreement en masse in the near future.

If UPOV successfully muscles in, the only unresolved problem for the formal intellectual property system would be how to protect community and indigenous knowledge and inventions.  WIPO has become very active on this issue through its new programme to extend IPRs to "new beneficiaries" (see Seedling, September 1998, p 2), such as indigenous peoples and local farming communities. WIPO plans two meetings in Geneva this year, one on intellectual property and indigenous peoples (August 2-3), and the other on biotechnology and the Biodiversity Convention (November 8-10).

Some key dates to watch for on the WTO scene in 1999 are:

* Council meetings (Geneva) : April 27-28, July 7-8, Sept 15-16, Nov 23-24

* C'tee on Trade and Envt: March 24-25, April 22-23, June 29-30, October 12-13

* WTO Ministerial Conference (Seattle, US): November 30 - December 3

Sources:;; personal communications.

Author: GRAIN
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