Hawaiian cultural and natural resources exploited


Source: July 2006 Ka Wai Ola o OHA Column

`Ano`ai kakou…  On March 2, 2006, I wrote University of Hawai’i President David McClain to request that UH abandon its patents on three varieties of Hawaiian taro.  I was disappointed that the University ignored Hawaiian cultural sensitivities by patenting a variety of taro that was developed through centuries of selective breeding by our native Hawaiians ancestors.  To make matters worse, the three patented Hawaiian taro are now exclusively licensed by the University, which forces farmers to pay a 2% royalty on gross sales of taro and prevents them from breeding or conducting research on the plants.  I urged President McClain to develop a strong policy that will ensure that our unique Hawaiian cultural and natural resources are not exploited. 

According to media reports, the University is currently researching ways to gain an exemption to its policy of automatically patenting new strains of taro.  UH’s vice chancellor for research and graduate education, Gary Ostrander, said the university “has come to both recognize and appreciate the unique place that taro occupies in the lives and culture of indigenous peoples and in particular our Native Hawaiian community.”  Ostrander said that while the institution has not determined how it will do so, “we can unequivocally state the intention of Manoa to make an exception to the process relating to patenting and licensing surrounding taro.” (Advertiser, May 17, 2006)

According to Ostrander, the issue is not a simple one for UH to resolve.  The three patented taro have been bred to be resistant to a fungal leaf blight and under UH union contracts, it must be protected through a patent.  He also said that if the university doesn’t obtain a patent, a commercial entity could easily obtain one and control the release of the hybrid.  “Manoa now must find a way to simultaneously be responsive to our faculty, their union, potential predatory commercial patents, and of no less importance, our greater Native Hawaiian community,” he said. (Advertiser, May 17, 2006)

While I understand that this issue will not be easy for the University to resolve, they must realize that time is critical and we can’t let this drag-on endlessly.  We must not allow Hawaiian intellectual properties to be left unprotected for even another day. 

One effective way to make this issue a priority within UH is to keep it in the public eye through protests.  Respected Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte has taken the lead by helping to build a stone memorial on the UH-Manoa lawn as a reminder of the connection between taro and Hawaiian culture.  He also helped to chain and lock the main entrances to the University’s School of Medicine in Kaka’ako, 15 minutes before the monthly UH Board of Regents meeting was scheduled to begin.  He stationed men dressed in white and yellow malos at the entrances to symbolically place a kapu on the building.

The protests shouldn’t be limited to just UH.  I sent letters to Senate President Robert Bunda and House Speaker Calvin Say in the last legislative session about this issue but, in the end, nothing happened.  Proposals were introduced to limit laboratory research and growth of genetically modified taro and coffee until mid-2011, and ban all work on genetically modified Hawaiian varieties of taro.  Unfortunately, these proposals went no-where.

It is important to note that the University has consistently taken license to capture Hawaiian resources without compensation to Hawaiians.  For example, the telescopes on Mauna Kea and the giving contracts to research companies to explore Hawaiian waters.  We need to seek legislation next year to make it illegal for the University to continue doing this without regulation.

With the election season coming up in the next few months, we need to make the protection of Hawaiian intellectual property rights an important campaign issue.  Our legislators need to know that we’re not going to sit idly by as the last of our valuable resources are stolen and controlled by a selfish few.  Imua e Hawai’i nei…