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Green Is The New Black

Biopiracy: You Wouldn’t Download Fabric, Would You?

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When we think about colonialism, we conjure images of exploitative empires, prejudice, and other forms of inequality. And when we think of neo-colonialism, we think of debt, influence, and even religion. However, we rarely think of textile, technology, or innovation. But why is that? You’ll be astonished to learn that the nexus lies in the guise of a “breakthrough in invention.”

Biopiracy has long been associated with colonialism, as historically, colonised countries were robbed of plenty of their natural resources. 

It is “the practice of commercial exploitation of biochemicals or genetic materials which occur naturally.” Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. While biopiracy is not a new phenomenon, it is a complicated one. In fact, in July 2000, the United States was not even sure what biopiracy meant or if it even existed. However, let us get the facts straight. Biopiracy exists, and it’s a serious issue.

What exactly is biopiracy?

In essence, biopiracy occurs when scientists or research organisations obtain biological resources from developing nations or marginalised communities without official permission.

The Canadian environmentalist Pat Roy Mooney first coined the term in the early 1990s, and it has since been adopted and modified by a wide range of social justice movements. Although most use the word “biopiracy,” others prefer the terms “bioprospecting” or even “biodiscovery.” While the difference can be seen as minute or insignificant, the choice of terminology is essential; as it provides us with an outlook on the legitimacy of the matter, mainly patenting or biopatenting. 

Again, it’s not as straightforward as it seems. The complexities surrounding biopiracy are so ridiculously intricate that, although it undoubtedly exists, the lines between it and other challenges blur to the point where you wonder whether it’s redundant.

However, the notion of ownership is central to the issue, and more specifically, who owns what?

Is it just cultural appropriation? 

Once more, the answer is both yes and no. Cultural appropriation lies in the adoption of an aspect or components of another culture or identity without proper acknowledgement or consent. Sounds eerily similar, right?

However, when evaluating power dynamics between cultures, it is critical to identify whether an imbalance is visible, as it helps identify the intricacies of appropriation. It should be said that it also happens between two cultures that hold equal power towards each other. Basically, both cultural appropriation and biopiracy are rooted in imbalances of power dynamics, with the minorities being taken advantage of, as usual.

For example, when The Mahjong Line released its “American Mahjong” collection in 2020, intending to introduce and educate people on American mahjong, a debate on cultural appropriation versus appreciation sparked, as the game pieces were removed of their traditional Chinese characters. However, the similarity to biopiracy must be mentioned, as three white women tried to erase an entire culture from a game that it originated from in order to be sellable to a new and trendier market.

So the bottom line is while biopiracy and cultural appropriation are almost mutually exclusive, the difference is that biopiracy solely pertains to bioresources that are appropriated.

 

IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A woman weaving textile using a big traditional loom device.

But why textile?

While the term biopiracy has often been used mainly for plants, teas, and pharmaceutical uses, recently, with the rise of sustainability, it has somehow, undetectably, weaved its way into the world of sustainable fashion. Lately, we’ve seen a rise in slow fashion and on-demand production, and another component that has popped up amidst the popularity is sustainable alternative leathers

Amongst the leaders of the alternative leather club is Piñatex, which is manufactured by a London-based company, Ananas Anam. Piñatex is a leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibres and is the brainchild of Spaniard Dr Carmen Hijosa. During her work as a consultant in the leather export industry in the Philippines during the 1990s, Dr Hijosa was inspired by the locals using pineapple leaf fibre (PALF) to weave the Barong Tagalog, the national costume for men in the Philippines.

It came to her as an epiphany to turn PALF into leather alternatives, as she found that the leather produced locally was “poor quality” and bad for the environment. Seeing her career in the conventional leather sector no longer viable or sustainable, she spent the next seven years at London’s Royal College of Art developing a now patented material—Piñatex. It’s where and how she earned her PhD.

Philippines’ pineapple pride

While it may seem like an ingenious form of cultural appreciation, it can be interpreted as the opposite, as since its inception, the piña has always been an overlooked victim of biopiracy and appropriation.

Filipinos have been using piña, a native Philippine fibre manufactured from PALF, since the 16th century. The fibre extraction and weaving techniques for piña were direct adaptations of indigenous weaving traditions used to extract abacá fibre, also known as Manila hemp which was made from the fibre of a native banana plant.

However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that the piña fabric market tipped, and piña clothing became popular with the upper-class and elite of the Philippines as a symbol of wealth and prestige. The cause of this move was the availability of inexpensive materials.

And by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, piña had become a luxury export from the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period, gaining appeal amongst the European nobility, including Queen Victoria

But as the textile industry expanded and the Spanish had left, demand for piña began to decline, and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the government undertook attempts to increase piña fabric production.

 

IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two local farmers squatting while working on a rice field.

So what’s the issue?

Despite the prevalence of pineapples in the country, piña is rarely used these days. In fact, in 2020, the Philippines was the top producer of pineapples in the whole world. It begs the question: why aren’t Filipinos utilising their abundance of pineapple resources?

Like everything else in this article, the answer is too nuanced or complex. However, one of the simplest answers is that the root lies in the fact that Filipinos still view piña as a sign of wealth and status, dating back to when Spain ruled the country.

If you ask Filipinos about piña, they’ll tell you that it’s the material of the expensive style of the Barong Tagalog or the Maria Clara gown, both of which are only used on special or formal occasions nowadays.

So, with Piñatex being heralded as the next big thing in fashion and even innovation, it’s rather unfair that the original piña innovators aren’t being given the credit they deserve. While you can argue that Piñatex is PALF mixed with PLA (polylactic acid) and petroleum-based resin and not the same as piña itself, it still isn’t acceptable that credit is not given where it’s due. 

The larger issue here is that even after a century of independence from the Spanish, another Spaniard has taken credit for a Filipino invention.

Controversially sustainable  

The disparity between the recognition Piñatex has received and the lack of awareness or knowledge of Piñatex’s core piña is striking.

Furthermore, Piñatex was able to work with leading global brands like Chanel, H&M, and Nike. However, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) has called out H&M’s The Conscious Collection, which includes its partnership with Piñatex, as “greenwashing.”

Other than the fact that Piñatex is made of 80% piña, it is also not entirely sustainable. In fact, Ananas Anam has stated that the fabric is not biodegradable. Interestingly, environmental issues have been highlighted by the usage of petroleum and its byproducts, such as the one used in Piñatex.

Further questions, your honour

While there are certainly ways to go regarding biopiracy and appropriation in general, the main question we should be asking is: firstly, do we need to create more companies or products in order to be sustainable? Secondly, can we already use the innovations available, some of which have been around for centuries? And lastly, is there really any social justice when the privileged are the only ones who are able to create or use these new sustainable products?

It also evokes the idea of community in general. Instead of collecting and chasing accolades for ourselves, should we be more community-based and instead lift each other up, which can hopefully, and optimistically, aid in moving the shift towards greater sustainability in general?

 

IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Three local farmers packing pineapples into a woven basket while being surrounded by pineapples.

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