JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
From left, taro farmer Chris Kobayashi, Jon Osorio, director of the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies, and Walter Ritte tore the patent documents for taro grown locally during a press conference at the Center for Hawaiian Studies on the UH Manoa Campus yesterday morning.
Activists tear up 3 UH patents for taro
Chants honoring the Hawaiian people's kinship with kalo, or taro, began a ceremony yesterday that culminated in Hawaiians tearing up copies of patents on the staple plant that the University of Hawaii had decided to relinquish.
"It is as if the patents were never filed," said Gary Ostrander, vice chancellor for research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who attended the event. "Anyone throughout the world may now plant them, may propagate them, sell them."
Since January, Hawaiians have been pushing the university to give up patents it had obtained on three varieties of disease-resistant taro it developed. The Hawaiians argue that kalo as the "elder brother" of the Hawaiian people should not be owned.
"Today is a victory," said activist Walter Ritte of Molokai, who helped lead the effort to end the only patents on Hawaiian taro. "The university has taken a big step by listening to the people they should be listening to. It's a huge example for other people to follow."
After a leaf blight wiped out 90 percent of the taro in Samoa in the 1990s, Ostrander said, University of Hawaii scientists were asked to help.
They used traditional breeding techniques to cross Palauan and Hawaiian taro to produce three strains resistant to the disease, and the university obtained plant patents on them in 2002.
In January, Ritte and Kauai taro farmer Christine Kobayashi sent a letter to the university demanding that the patents be dropped. Their protest grew, and on May 18, Hawaiians clad in malo padlocked the entrance to the university's medical school in an effort to make their point.
"UH did not invent taro, and they had no right to own it or license it to farmers," Kobayashi said in a written statement yesterday.
After behind-the-scenes negotiations, the university filed "terminal disclaimers" with the U.S. Patent Office that dissolved its proprietary interests as of last Friday. It had issued 13 licenses to use the plant, but licensees no longer owe royalties or any other obligation to the university, Ostrander said.
"I hope this is an opportunity to continue to develop our existing relationship based on mutual trust and respect, as undoubtedly we will face other issues as we go forward," Ostrander said, adding that he had come to appreciate the Hawaiians' point of view on the issue.
"The Hawaiian people have been modifying and growing taro for 1,000 years, and probably 5,000 years before that in Polynesia," he said. "What seems counterintuitive now is that a faculty member can make an improvement now and patent it."
At yesterday's event at the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa interim Chancellor Denise Konan handed the copies of the patents on three varieties of taro to Kobayashi, Ritte and Jon Osorio, director of the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies. In unison, the three tore them in half.
The patents were on taro plants named "Paakala," "Pauakea" and "Palehua," all known for their vigorous growth, good taste, and resistance to taro leaf blight.
Manu Kaiama, director of the Native Hawaiian Leadership Project, welcomed the university's move, but said it wasn't making a big financial sacrifice.
"They don't have much of a market," she said. "I wonder if the administration would have been willing to give up a patent that was going to make millions of dollars."
Ostrander acknowledged that the patents are "not a big money maker right now" but said interest had been expressed in using the kalo varieties in baby food.
Graduate student Kelii Collier called the patent fight just the first step in a broader movement against other UH undertakings such as a proposed military research center on the campus.
"It is the beginning for the university to do the right thing," he said. "The next time we meet it will be to rip out the UARC (University Affiliated Research Center) contract."