Protesters gear up for biotech event
This week's Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy has all the trappings of a world-class meeting: government officials, multinational corporations, learned academics and, of course, protesters.
Although it's not clear how many will show up, the activists pledge to be out in force at the event, which starts today at Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Mililani Trask of Na Koa Ikaika Kalahui Hawaii, a human rights and environmental group, said a main concern is the lack of a framework to protect the environment and native species. Hawaiian groups created just such as framework in 2003 in a document called the "Paoakalani Declaration." But politicians and corporations have ignored the declaration, she said.
Trask points to a lawsuit involving Mera Pharmaceuticals Inc. as an example of the state's deficiencies. When the company wanted to import genetically engineered algae from California to grow on the Big Island, environmental groups had to sue to force the state Department of Agriculture to require studies of potential environmental impacts.
There's also the issue of patenting the genes of native plants and microscopic organisms, a process called bioprospecting.
Walter Ritte, a spokesman for Hui Hoopakele Aina, compared the activity to the taking of Hawaiian lands in the 19th century. Ritte said capitalists are now attempting to seize and sell Hawaii's mana, or spiritual life force.
"Now they're trying to take the thing that is us, that has sustained us, and they're going to do the same thing to that that they did to the land," Ritte said.
Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said that in contrast to some pharmaceutical firms, industrial biotech companies generally gather not plants, but microscopic organisms found in mud.
Although the conference has a panel on bioprospecting, Trask said she and other locals were denied the chance to participate.
"It's a shame that public resources were spent, and every effort was made to exclude the public, the farmers, the native Hawaiian stakeholders," she said.
Erickson said that the local organizers of the panel discussion had not submitted Trask's name to the organization. In any case, he said, the meeting was not meant to be a forum for debate.
"This conference is not about having debates," he said. "It's about scientific information and policy information."