Bioprospecting and Biopiracy in the Americas

In the 1570s, a physician named Francisco Hernández led the first colonial scientific expedition to the New World. He traveled Mexico collecting plants that might prove valuable in curing European diseases. Since Hernández was clueless when it came to the properties of local plant species, he depended on knowledgeable indigenous healers who guided him to medicinal plants.

September 4, 2007

In the 1570s, a physician named Francisco Hernández led the first colonial scientific expedition to the New World. He traveled Mexico collecting plants that might prove valuable in curing European diseases. Since Hernández was clueless when it came to the properties of local plant species, he depended on knowledgeable indigenous healers who guided him to medicinal plants.

Today, indigenous rights activists have a name for what Dr. Hernández did: they call it “biopiracy,” while some prefer the more neutral, “bioprospecting.” Both terms refer to the collection of biological matter from biodiverse regions by corporations for the purpose of extracting useful genetic or biochemical resources that have a profitable and patentable commercial application. Since the wealth of the globe’s biodiversity is mostly concentrated in equatorial regions, bioprospecting is mainly conducted in Third World countries.

But like Dr. Hernández, modern scientists depend on knowledgeable locals—namely, campesinos and indigenous peoples—to work as guides or plant collectors that help narrow the plant species screened for potentially valuable properties. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, consultation with indigenous peoples doubles the success rate of finding plants with commercially applicable properties.

Indigenous activists and their allies argue corporations are exploiting local knowledge and resources without any social or economic benefit to local communities. But at the heart of the issue is much more than the greed of pharmaceutical corporations. Bioprospecting raises a host of questions about critical global issues, including indigenous rights, intellectual property, environmental conservation, international treaties, and patents.

The stakes are high. A study by ethnobotanist Darrel Posey published in 1990 estimated that the annual world market for medicines derived from medicinal plants discovered from indigenous peoples was $43 billion. However, writes Posey, “less than 0.001% of the profits from drugs that originated from traditional medicine have ever gone to the indigenous peoples who led researchers to them.”

With the rise of the biotechnology industry in the 1980s and 1990s, biotech companies faced increased competition and expiring patents. In response, they increasingly turned to bioprospecting as an attractive way of supplementing synthetic product development, especially in drug discovery.

The bioprospecting turn coincided with a newfound global emphasis on environmental problems that culminated with the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development—known as the “Earth Summit.” The year also marked the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish invasion of the New World, and indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, and elsewhere, had already engaged a heightened sense of activism and assertiveness.

The most important treaty to come out of the Earth Summit was the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which set out three main goals: the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable development, and, according to anthropologist Cori Hayden, “the distribution of biodiversity-based industry profits to Southern ‘stewards’ of genetic resources.”

Through Article 8(j) of the treaty, signatory nations made a commitment to protect indigenous knowledge, agreeing that any benefits derived from that knowledge—say, in the form of a prescription drug—should be shared equitably with the source-community. Tony Simpson, a lifelong indigenous rights activist, describes the CDB as the “first international environmental treaty to tackle the issue of intellectual property and the need to ensure the equitable use and sharing of biodiversity.”

The implications of the CDB are profound. First, as Hayden notes, biodiversity becomes defined as a productive resource with economic value that should be conserved. The CDB also granted status to biological resources as goods to which nations have sovereignty, as opposed to the “international commons” under which these resources were previously assumed to pertain. It should be noted that nation-states, defined by the treaty as the new “owners” of biodiversity, are often at odds with the indigenous groups inside their borders.

Hayden says the most significant shift brought on by the CDB is that biodiversity came to be managed as intellectual property. The treaty “banks on biotechnology and intellectual property as key engines for valorizing biodiversity—and thus indispensable in promoting conservation and nondestructive, sustainable development,” writes Hayden.

The architects of the treaty reasoned that biotechnology and intellectual property rights (i.e. patents) give an economic incentive for countries to preserve the environment and manage it in a sustainable way. As with many lofty international treaties, things are often much more complicated on the ground.

Though it predated the CBD by a year, one of the most famous bioprospecting deals is between the Costa Rican government through its biodiversity agency, INBio, and Merck, the pharmaceutical giant. Under the deal, Merck pays a $1 million a year for exclusive access to specimens collected by INBio-trained and -contracted collectors and ensures INBio a percentage of royalties. INBio uses the money to fund conservation projects.

The United States is the only major functioning government that has still not ratified the CDB. The U.S. government also happens to be a leading promoter of “benefit-sharing” bioprospecting contracts. It does so through an obscure government initiative known as the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG). The ICBG is managed jointly by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to its Web site, the ICBG “aims to link drug discovery, biodiversity research, conservation and development by means of collaboration between consortia of organizations.” It has funded drug discovery projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including projects in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Suriname.

A typical ICBG contract gives a huge research grant to a U.S. university with money from its associated government agencies. The university researchers strike two simultaneous partnerships. One is with a pharmaceutical company that agrees to help research and commercialize potential drug discoveries. The other partnership—often brokered by local scientists—includes a local community that agrees to assist the researchers in finding medicinal plants in return for a share in the profits.

ICBG-sponsored contracts, for example, allow source-communities a 1-5% share in royalties, though it can take several decades for a product to take shape. The funds are then channeled to a locally managed non-governmental organization set up by the contract that distributes the funds toward local, community-driven development projects.

In her book When Nature Goes Public author Cori Hayden explains that bioprospecting contracts provide a series of incentives that are meant to create a congruence of interests. “The goal of prospecting agreements,” writes Hayden, “is to turn often-conflicting parties—developing nations, indigenous or local communities, the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries—into mutually dependent ‘investors,’ by actively producing one piece of shared ground: that each has something tangible to gain from the sustainable management of biodiversity.”

The ICBG came to the attention of activists when the $2.5 million ICBG Maya project was launched in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in 1999. Even before the project was launched, many local Maya communities—including those part of the Zapatista movement—rose in opposition calling the project blatant biopiracy.

Activists argued the Mexican legal system was not equipped to handle such a project and that ICBG Maya had not received full consent from locals and would provide no major benefits to communities. Although the researchers had set up an NGO to deliver benefits named Promaya, an abbreviation for the “Protection of Maya Intellectual Property Rights,” opposition was fierce. Amid persistent protests, the U.S. researchers, who had more than 40-years experience working in Maya communities, scrapped the project two years after it began.

“It [was] not a simple tale of greedy corporations vs. once-innocent locals,” writes journalist Barbara Belejack in a NACLA article on the controversy. “For also involved in the project were a whole list of public institutions that see their mission as protecting the environment by reviving research on plant-based medicines.”

Still, among the many unresolved questions about bioprospecting and benefit-sharing arrangements is a central contradiction: indigenous groups are still being sold back patent-protected medicines based on knowledge and biological resources that have long been part of their cultural repertoires.

What’s more, corporations have monopoly rights on these medicines through ironclad patents protected by international treaties, which unlike the CBD actually have enforcement mechanisms. In fact, a year after the CBD was signed the precursor group to what later became the World Trade Organization (WTO), concluded negotiations on “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights” (TRIPS). TRIPS provisions require WTO member-states to enforce patent protections through domestic legislation for all kinds of technology, including patents on “microorganisms and patent-like protection on plant varieties.”

Many activists roundly reject the patenting of biological life. But some indigenous rights advocates are considering intellectual property rights as a way for often-exploited communities to gain control over the use and dissemination of their knowledge and biogenetic resources. However, critics of this strategy are understandably wary of using a market-mediated mechanism—that is, the commodification of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge through patenting—to protect their rights.

As anthropologist Stephen Brush notes, “Ironically, proponents of these rights seek to address problems caused in part by the expansion of capitalism by employing a tool of capitalism. The idea that more capitalism is needed to cure its own problems is certainly not novel, but one that anthropologists and indigenous people should approach with caution.”

Although supporters of bioprospecting say benefit-sharing contracts seek a balance between social, environmental, and economic priorities, the contracts generate even more questions: How is “ownership” of biogenetic material determined? Who constitutes a “local community” or an “indigenous group”? What is an “equitable” arrangement? Should indigenous groups seek their own patents? These questions have no simple answers.

At the height of the ICBG Maya conflict in Chiapas, a press statement by the opposition called for a moratorium on bioprospecting, “so that we can discuss, understand and propose our own alternative approaches to using our resources and knowledge.”

Unfortunately, the “alternative approach” called for in the statement released more than eight years ago remains elusive.

Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006).

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