RiceTec Paddy Whack

An Alvin-based rice company, the Prince of Liechtenstein, the United States Patent Office, and an Indian eco-feminist bring global trade debates to a roiling boil on Houston's back burner

As international trade protests go, Alvin, Texas was no Seattle. The demonstration was scheduled for 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon in late October, and if any locals were unemployed at that hour, they were certainly not standing at the intersection of FM 2403 and FM 2917 in front of the RiceTec company's generic beige new corporate office.

The participants who did show were mostly from Houston and, judging by their Green Party bumper stickers, had learned of the day's event from one of the many flyers passed around outside Ralph Nader's September rally at the University of Houston. There were a few older ladies, a few college-aged youths, several representatives of the Houston Catholic Worker wearing protest t-shirts screened with "Stop BioPiracy" on the front and "Stop Global Exploitation" on the back, two reporters, and a photographer. When head-protester Vandana Shiva arrived fresh from Hobby Airport, chauffeured by an Austin supporter, it was already close to four in the afternoon, and the completed crowd totaled maybe a dozen.

Once Shiva arrived, advertised as a "visionary, author, activist and eco-feminist," the protesters massed around her short, brown, sari-draped figure on the grassy shoulder of 2917's northbound lane and unfurled their banner -- "No to BioPiracy -- Hands Off Basmati"-- toward the blacktop. After several passing trucks failed to honk, the protesters turned the banner to face the tinted windows of RiceTec, a note-taking secretary standing in the front breezeway, and the distant and disinterested glances of several local deputies called out to keep the peace, just in case. The Catholic Workers and Shiva took turns on the megaphone:

"Don't steal the knowledge of Third World grandmothers!"

"We told you once! We told you twice! Hands off basmati rice!"

Invited to converse over the intervening chain-link fence, the RiceTec note-taker retreated instead back through the front door. Inside, RiceTec brass, including CEO Robin Andrews, Vice President of Marketing Richard Long and P.R. hired gun Bruce Hicks -- all white men -- gathered in a conference room, opened a window, and took turns marveling at and doubtless cussing Shiva's case: against the patenting of life forms, against the theft of indigenous knowledge, against the violation of geographical appellations, against the legal integrity of RiceTec's sole patent, against trade globalization, against intellectual colonization, against monopoly agriculture, against Third World debt, against royalty payment for seed, and, neither last nor least, against RiceTec itself, which, in the relatively routine business of developing and patenting an (arguably) new strain of rice, had stepped solidly into a steaming pile of global gray area that left the company's boots smelling like something Monsanto Corp.'s cat dragged in.

Through Shiva's eye, RiceTec is a First World devil, gatekeeper of a growing regime of masculine global corporatization that will sacrifice human liberty and threaten humane survival, especially that of poor women, for profit. As if in exorcism, she demands that the devil recant his hold on the company, that it abandon its claim and change its name.

To RiceTec, Shiva is a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided pest who doesn't understand patent law, confuses issues, and willfully misinforms her audience for dramatic effect. From very early on it was clear that RiceTec, seeing itself as mere infantry in any global trade wars, had no intention of unilaterally disarming itself.

The two sides could stand in the middle of Farm to Market 2917 all day long -- both talking entirely different sorts of good sense -- and neither would once think to change lanes. Their difference of opinion is so profound, their points of reference so disparate, the foundations of their arguments laid on such distant lots, they can not agree on the seemingly simplest of propositions.

For instance:

Before leaving Alvin to prepare for a 7 p.m. lecture in Houston titled "WTO, Basmati Rice & the Stolen Harvest," Shiva walked across the road and looked out into a shaggy field.

"They look unhappy," she said. "The rice plants. Ours at home look very happy."

"That," RiceTec reports, "is because it's not rice. That's our test field, it was harvested in August. That's weeds."

f RiceTec CEO Robin Andrews and Vandana Shiva were sitting on either side of you in a movie theater, that would be weird.

Shiva's manner is plump and motherly. She touches you on the forearm to signal comfort while she patiently explains the alarming proposition of the world going to hell in a handbasket, and probably not even a handbasket woven by indigenous peasants, but some mass-produced piece of crap from Pottery Barn. She has compared McDonald's' business practices to the administrative behavior of the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. She conveys not despair, but faith in the power of activism to halt such progress. She comes across thoughtful, decided, and relentless.

Andrews is a slightly rumpled bean-thin man with the kind of white hair that's called a shock when grown on British heads, which his is, and an exceedingly soft voice that lilts out common-sensicle reassurances that no, the sky's not falling, and if you'll look at the evidence closely and with logic, here's why. He seems to have been trained to avoid outright dismissiveness in public, but his professed bemusement and befuddlement over the flap has a quietly snorting side, too.

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