It would seem odd that an Indigenous woman from the hinterlands of Indonesian West Timor would help decide a case before the US Supreme Court, but that’s exactly what happened (in my head, at least) as I listened to Aleta Baun receive the Goldman Environmental Prize at the San Francisco Opera House on Monday night.
Photo Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize
I know I’m connecting two dots that are very far apart, so let’s step back a minute.
First, the Supreme Court case. On Monday the justices heard oral arguments in the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics Inc. The court is deciding whether a private company, Myriad Genetics, deserves a patent for isolating a human gene that indicates a disposition to breast and ovarian cancers. A collection of organizations of physicians, researchers, patients, and geneticists are contesting Myriad’s patent claim. They say the DNA strands are “snippets of nature” and shouldn’t be given intellectual property rights protections. Here’s the how The Washington Post describes the importance of the case: “The decision could shape the future of medical and genetic research and have profound effects on pharmaceuticals and genetically modified crops.”
Along with another genetic patent case — Vernon Bowman vs Monsanto Company, which the Supreme Court heard in February — the justice’s decision in the cancer gene dispute will likely be a landmark ruling for how American law treats humans’ relationship with the building blocks of life itself.
Next, then, Aleta Baun, one of the winners of the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize. Baun — or “Mama Aleta,” as everyone calls her at home — is a member of the Mollo nation on the island of Timor. In the 1980s, the local government issued permits for mining companies to begin cutting marble from the Mutis Mountains, a range that is home to the headwaters of West Timor’s major rivers. When the mining — and accompanying deforestation — began in earnest, the region started to experience landslides that clogged river waters, making life harder for downstream communities. Determined to halt the mining, Mama Aleta enlisted other women in a campaign to travel to the region’s villages and organize the local communities into a resistance effort. The crazy-brave Aleta soon found herself with a price on her head, but she kept up the campaign anyway. The anti-mining movement eventually included hundreds of villagers, and culminated in a year-long occupation in which some 150 women sat down on the marble rocks, spending most of their time quietly weaving their traditional cloth. In 2010 the mining companies halted operations at all four quarries within Molo territory.
So what does Mama Aleta have to do with Myriad Genetics’ claim that it owns the genetic marker for breast and ovarian cancer disposition? Superficially, nothing. But philosophically, everything.
In her Goldman Prize acceptance speech, Mama Aleta laid down a profound intellectual challenge to the notion that scientific discovery automatically confers ownership. Wearing a beautiful hand-woven dress and an elaborate silver headdress, Baun said: “For the Indigenous Timor people, the earth is our body; land is our flesh; water is our blood; forest is the artery and hair; and stone is the backbone. If one of these parts goes missing, the earth will be paralyzed.” She closed her speech by declaring: “We, the community of Mollo, Amanatun, and Amanuban tribes, stand by our way of life, which we see as the only way to live in balance with our environment: we only sell what we create, and we will not sell what we cannot create.”
We only sell what we create, and we will not sell what we cannot create. That sounds very much like the argument that Christopher A. Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union made at the Supreme Court just hours before Baun’s speech. “The genes themselves . . . where they start and stop, what they do, what they are made of, and what happens when they go wrong are all decisions that were made by nature, not by Myriad,” Hansen said. “Now, Myriad deserves credit for having unlocked these secrets. Myriad does not deserve a patent for it.”
I’m happily surprised that many of the justices also appeared skeptical of the idea that a company can own part of humans’ genetic blueprint. Here’s what conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said from the bench: “You don’t look at a tree and say, ‘Well, I’ve cut the branch here and cut it here and all of a sudden I’ve got a baseball bat.’ You have to invent it, if you will. You don’t have to invent the particular segment of the [DNA] strand; you just have to cut it off.”
Mama Aleta, of course, already understands this. She can identify a plant in the jungle and know that it is medicine, good for curing, say, fever or diarrhea or menstrual cramps. But that does not make her the owner of that plant. She is merely its user, at best its steward. She would never think to sell that which she did not create.
Here’s hoping that the spirit of that indigenous wisdom will somehow influence the justices as they decide this landmark case.