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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Activists celebrate end of taro patents

By Mark Niesse
Associated Press

Hawaiian activists destroyed three patents on sacred taro plants yesterday after the University of Hawai'i relinquished its rights to the genetically enhanced breeds.

The university gave up ownership of the patents on these crossbreeds of taro after months of protests, including a demonstration in which farmers and students chained the entrance of a school building before a meeting of the Board of Regents.

"It's so important because life forms shouldn't be patented," said Christine Kobayashi, a taro farmer from Hanalei on Kaua'i. "Nobody should own any life form. This is a good start."

Taro is considered to be a sacred ancestor of the Hawaiian people.

The three varieties of taro were created through crossbreeding by University of Hawai'i researchers to help fight a leaf blight in Samoa that killed 97 percent of the plant there in the early 1990s, said Gary Ostrander, vice chancellor for research.

University officials filed papers Friday, called terminal disclaimers, which release these breeds of taro into the public for use by anyone, without having to notify or pay royalties to the school, he said. The patents had been in place since 2002.

"Neither the University of Hawai'i nor anyone else in the world has a proprietary or any other ownership interest in these three varieties," Ostrander said. "They're now available for anybody in the world to use."

During a ceremony yesterday celebrating the end of the patents, three of the protesters tore copies of the taro patents in half amid cheers from about 50 people in the crowd.

"For them to do what they did is not any easy thing," said Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte, who started organizing opposition to the patented varieties of taro five months ago. "They actually listened to us."

According to Hawaiian legend, the cosmic first couple gave birth to a stillborn, Haloa, from whose gnarled body sprang the broad-leafed plant whose roots are pounded into poi.

The Hawaiian people, it is believed, came from a second brother, making the plant part of their common ancestry.

The university announced earlier this month that it planned to give the patents to Native Hawaiians, but they refused the offer because they believe taro shouldn't be owned by anyone.

"This is a real victory for people who are opposed to the notion that life itself can become the property of others," said Jon Osorio, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the university.

Taro has been crossbred by farmers in the Pacific islands for hundreds of years, and the idea that slightly different varieties of the plant could now be patented invigorated the protesters, Ritte said.

The taro protection group includes members of several environmental, agricultural and anti-genetic modification organizations.

They said they are now seeking a greater voice in future university decisions over intellectual property and biodiversity.