No Hunting! Biodiversity, indigenous rights, and scientific poaching

IN A RECENT ARTICLE, THE Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes denounced the US invasion of Panama as the Bush Administration's declaration of its intent to hunt whomever, whatever, and wherever it likes in Latin America. Fuentes warned, "If we do not post `No Hunting' signs, our lands will be poached on. We must set up our signs quickly and be prepared to enforce them with prudence and a firm will."

Of course, the United States has been stalking political prey in Latin America for many years now. But the high drama of the pursuits of Manuel Noriega and the Sandinistas should not blind us to the existence of economic as well as political quarries. The direct and indirect removal of Third World leaders and governments by the United States has often served to facilitate the extraction of raw materials - especially agricultural products - on terms favorable to North American business interests.

And the scope of the hunt for raw materials in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World has been expanded in recent years. Molecular biologists now have cracked the gene as physicists had previously cracked the atom, and in doing so have gained access to the very building blocks of life itself. We are poised on the edge of an era of production that will use DNA - genetic information - as one of its fundamental raw materials. According to biotechnology company executive Winston Brill, "We are now entering an age in which genetic wealth, especially in tropical areas such as rain forests, until now a relatively inaccessible trust fund, is becoming a currency with high immediate value."

The value of Third World genetic resources may appear high to corporate gene merchants, but that value is rarely captured by the indigenous people on whose lands genetic materials are being hunted. Genetic resources are now considered to be the "common heritage of humankind" and as such are freely collected - would Fuentes say "poached"? - by both academic and corporate biologists.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF PLANT HUNTING

This type of economic hunting has as extensive a history as its political counterpart. The developed countries have already realized enormous benefits from their access to Third World genetic materials. This is perhaps most clear in the case of crop plants. Few of the crops that today make the United States an agricultural power are native to North America. European colonizers found Native Americans growing maize, beans, tobacco, and squash; but these crops had been introduced from Central America and the Caribbean. A truly North American meal would consist only of sunflowers, blueberries, cranberries, pecans, and chestnuts. Northern Europe's original genetic poverty is only slightly less striking: oats, rye, currants, and raspberries constitute the complement of major crops indigenous to that region.

The crops that one associates today with the agricultural economies of the developed nations - maize, wheat, soybeans, potatoes, alfalfa, barley, sorghum, tomatoes, cotton, tobacco - have in fact been introduced from their areas of origin in what are now the nations of the Third World. The agricultural development that has undergirded the industrialization of the rich but gene-poor North has been predicated on the collection of genetic materials from the poor but gene-rich South. During what botanical historians call the "Golden Age of Plant Hunting" in the 1890s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a systematic policy and institutional framework for see and plant introduction.

And such materials have been collected principally from among indigenous people. The seeds and plants thus accumulated are emphatically not simple products of nature; they are products of human genius. Indigenous agriculturists made very great advances in crop productivity. Botanist Jack Harlan credits the American Indian with a "magnificent performance" in the improvement of maize, potato, manioc, sweet potato, peanut, and the common bean. Robert Leffel, of the USDA's National Research Program for Oilseed Crops, admits that it was the indigenous people of Asia who "made the big accomplishment in soybean breeding" and that "[scientists] have merely fine-tuned the system to date." Plant breeder Norman Simmonds observes that "probably, the total genetic change achieved by farmers over the millennia was far greater than that achieved by the last hundred or two years of more systematic science-based effort."

And this productive labor continues wherever indigenous people have been able to retain their connection to the land. In their day-to-day agricultural activities, indigenous farmers the world over constantly produce and reproduce the genetic diversity which is the raw material of the modern plant breeder. Hence, plant scientists have continued to return to the Third World to collect samples from the thousands of genetically diverse "landraces" developed and maintained by peasant farmers. Rich in genetic characters providing protection against diseases, pests, and environmental fluctuation, these collected material are stored in climate-controlled "gene banks," most of which are located in the industrialized world.

Access to such materials has been worth untold billions of dollars to the developed nations whose high-performing but genetically narrow cultivars must frequently be replaced in a "varietal relay race" against insects, disease, and weather. For example, the genes that protect the US barley crop from yellow dwarf disease were obtained from an Ethiopian landrace. New soybean varieties developed by University of Illinois plant breeders using Korean materials may save US agriculture $100-500 million in processing costs yearly. And just a few months ago, University of Wisconsin scientists announced that they had developed a new type of bean capable of supplying up to 60 percent of its own nitrogen needs. What made this advance possible was breeding material obtained from a research institute in Colombia that had collected bean varieties from the fields of Latin American peasant farmers.

The utility of Third World genetic resources for developed-nation agriculture's is being enhanced by the emergence of biotechnology. That the chemical structure of the genetic code is identical in all species makes the techniques of genetic engineering into a kind of biological Esperanto. According to Calgene executive Raymond Valentine, the plant biotechnologist's motto is "any gene out of any organism into plants." As both classical plant breeders and molecular geneticists learn to use their new research tools more effectively, demand for the raw material for their work is increasing. Accordingly, the USDA has developed a computerized database to provide information on the crop genetic resources available in any given country. And, in order to augment the constant flow of plant materials already received yearly from the global network of international agricultural research institutions, the USDA's Plant Exploration Office will this year send 30 collecting expeditions to 17 different nations. In fact, the Golden Age of Plant Hunting never ended.

THE BOTANICAL MEDICINE CHEST

And, as was the case for agronomic species, most medically important plants have Third World origins. Much surgery relies on d-tubocurarine, a muscle relaxant isolated from an Amazonian liana. The steroid diosgenin, a principal component in birth control pills, is extracted from a wild yam native to Mexico and Guatemala. From Madagascar's rosy periwinkle is derived the vincristine and vinblastine used against Hodgkin's Disease and juvenile leukemia. Global sales of those two drugs total $160 million per year. And from the Asian rauwolfia plant comes the tranquilizer reserpine, which in drug form enjoys an annual market of $260 million.

The 121 plant-derived prescription drugs now in use were discovered through the examination of about 35,000 species. Only about 5,000 of these were exhaustively analyzed. There are an estimated 300,000-750,000 plant species in the world. Clearly, there are many, many more medically useful compounds awaiting discovery - and most of them will be in plants native to the Third World, a large fraction of them to rain forests. Recognizing this, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) has initiated a multimillion-dollar program designed to collect tens of thousands of plant specimens from tropical forests over the next five years.

But how can what Cornell University entomologist Thomas Eisner calls "chemical prospecting" be most effectively undertaken? Of the vast and bewildering variety of organisms available, which ones should be collected and analyzed? One approach is to focus on organisms already being used by indigenous people. In Southeast Asia, traditional healers utilize some 6,500 plants. Worldwide, more than 3,000 plant species are used by indigenous people to control fertility alone. Thus, indigenous people possess an enormous reservoir of cultural information that can provide useful guidance as to which pieces of the natural world are worth a closer look.

Tapping this reservoir of knowledge has already proven effective. Three-quarters of the plants that provide active ingredients for prescription drugs originally came to the attention of researchers because of their uses in traditional medicine. Accordingly, the NCI collection strategy involves close attention to indigenous medical practice and especially to the expertise of traditional healers and curanderos. Similarly, the USDA's crop germplasm acquisition policy now gives priority to obtaining samples for which the ethnic source of the cultivar is described.

PRIVATE APPROPRIATION OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE

The NCI and the USDA are public agencies. But private businesses also show growing interest in the potentials of genetic and chemical prospecting among indigenous people. The biotechnology firm Native Plants, Inc. has begun to collect seeds of indigenous Andean crop species such as amaranth and quinoa. The drug transnational Merck, Sharpe and Dohme, a leader in natural products chemistry, is now working to develop a new anticoagulant based on the tikiuba plant used by the Uru-eu-Wau-Wau Indians of the Brazilian Amazon. And Monsanto has begun laboratory tests on uruchnumi, one of more than 1,000 species of plants collected over the last few years from the Jivaro Indians of Peru during expeditions led by Washington University ethnobotanist Walter Lewis.

Whether collected by government, university, or corporate scientists, the genetic and cultural information extracted from the South is ultimately intended to be applied to some useful purpose: a new drug, or seed of a new crop variety. But in industrial society such innovations are made available as commodities; they must be purchased. Monsanto is interested not just in developing a drug from uruchnumi, but in developing a marketable drug. And if it can, Monsanto will strengthen its property rights in that drug by taking out a patent. Business interests in the developed nations have worked very hard over the past 10 years to assemble a legal framework that ensures that genetically engineered materials - whole organisms, tissue cultures, cells, DNA sequences - can be owned.

There is an important asymmetry here. Genetic and cultural information extracted from the Third World is processed in the academic and corporate laboratories of the developed nations for the express purpose of producing new commodities for private profit. Yet when that information is collected from Andean peasants and Amazonian Indians, scientists consider it to be the "common heritage" of humanity, a public good for which no payment is appropriate or necessary. According to University of Massachusetts biologist Garrison Wilkes, "The major food plants of the world are not owned by any one people and are quite literally a part of our human heritage from the past."

It is ironic that the Third World resource that the developed nations have, arguably, extracted for the longest time, derived the greatest benefits from, and still depend upon the most is one for which nothing is paid. Indigenous people have an effect been engaged in a massive program of foreign aid to the urban populations of the industrialized North. Genetic and cultural information has been produced and reproduced over the millennia by peasants and indigenous people. Yet, like the unwaged labor of women, the fruits of this work are given no value despite their recognized utility. On the other hand, when such information is processed and transformed in the developed nations, the realization of its value is enforced by legal and political mandate.

Thus it is that I can read an article about the traditional uses of an Asian tree in the academic journal Economic Botany ("Potential of the Neem Tree (Azidarachta indica) for Pest Control and Rural Development") and a year later find an article in the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times titles "State Man's Pesticide on Road on Fame." The latter article describes how "Businessman Tony Larson has impressed industrialists and government officials with his one man campaign to provide the world's farmers with a pesticide made from seeds of an Asian tree." Somehow Asian farmers' pesticide has become "state man's pesticide." And not just rhetorically, but quite literally, since Larson has a patent on his formulation of Neem extract which he calls "Margosan-O." Margosan-O has been approved for certain uses by the Environmental Protection Agency, is now commercially available, and has been licensed to W.R. Grace for further research and development. Should Monsanto indeed develop a profitable drug from the auruchnumi plant, there is no reason to expect that the Jivaro - or Peru - will be rewarded for their contribution to this advance any more than the people of Madagascar were rewarded for the development of vinblastine and vincristine.

Let us be clear about this. There is no denying that academic and corporate scientists are adding value in their manipulation of the genetic and cultural information acquired from the Third World. But what needs to be recognized in addition is that value already exists in the collected materials. In a world in which the Jivaro have precious little to sell except their labor power, is it ethical to fail to provide them with some reward for their contribution of genetic materials and information that are unambiguously useful and potentially exceedingly valuable? If access to these raw materials results in benefits to companies or consumers, isn't an ethical obligation incurred to see that the donors benefit as well?

NO HUNTING WITHOUT PERMISSION

But if ethical behavior were all there was to it, Fuentes wouldn't have been writing about the invasion of Panama. As it is, he is quite right to observe that if "No Hunting" signs are not posted, poaching will continue. Indigenous people have the right to insist on an end to the unrecompensed extraction of genetic and cultural information and to require that genetic and chemical prospecting be undertaken - if it all - in accordance with well-defined rules that assure the donors of such resources a reciprocal flow of benefit.

A necessary first step toward this goal is building awareness of the issue among indigenous people, indigenous people's organizations, and among the activist groups and nongovernmental organizations that support them. It is, after all, indigenous people themselves who should ultimately be responsible for making decisions about whether to post "No Hunting" signs and to what the signs should say and how they should be enforced.

And there is evidence that posting of indigenous resources can be achieved, though the effectiveness of such regulation is crucially dependent on the strength and character of indigenous rights over the land on which the resources are located and on the exigencies of national laws. For example, the Kuna of Panama require payments from scientists wanting to engage in collection or research activities on their land. Moreover, recognizing the real control of genetic information lies ultimately in knowing more about what it is and especially about how it might be used (and what it might be worth) in an industrial society, the Kuna require that an indigenous assistant accompany the scientist and that they have access to any reports resulting from the research or collection.

Such bilateral arrangements between a community or a people and an outside entity will surely be useful. But these agreements could well be subject to abuses, especially when the indigenous group has little experience with such legalisms and when substantial commercial as well as academic applications of knowledge are a real possibility. Some scientific organizations, such as the Society for Economic Botany, have begun to recognize the ethical issues involved, and promulgation of professional codes of conduct for researchers could have an important impact in facilitating norms of ethical conduct in research.

Still, elaboration of multilateral international agreements might be useful and even necessary in institutionalizing and legitimating the rights of indigenous people in the genetic and cultural information they generate. One such agreement is the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources established by the membership of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). One element of this Undertaking is an assertion of "farmers' rights" parallel to "plant breeders' rights." Just as plant scientists are entitled to a reward for their labor in creating breeding lines and elite varieties, so farmers have a right to a reward for creating and maintaining landraces and other "raw" plant genetic resources. Furthermore, just as the reward for plant breeders is not moral but material, so should farmers be entitled to material reward for use of the fruits of their labor. In order to provide a mechanism for the realization of such reward, the FAO has created an International Fund for Plant Genetic Resources.

The FAO's Undertaking is a signal advance inasmuch as it represents the first concrete recognition by an international body of the value of the many forms of knowledge production that take place outside the walls of formal knowledge-producing institutions such as universities and corporations. From this FAO initiative may emerge a mechanism for providing material reward to the vast but largely unacknowledged innovative activities of farmers and indigenous peoples. Still, there is much yet to be done to ensure that the FAO Undertaking and the Fund achieve a real redistribution of the flow of benefits from the users of genetic information and not mere rhetorical recognition of abstract "rights."

Additional concrete steps toward a New World Genetic Order may be taken under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In cooperation with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Resources Institute, UNEP is preparing a draft of an International Convention on Biological Diversity. Certainly, acknowledgment of the legitimate property rights of indigenous peoples must be a component of any such convention. Creating equitable compensation mechanisms for the appropriation of genetic information would redress a significant inequity in the relationship between indigenous people and the industrialized world, a world that has so long and so greatly benefited from their profound knowledge of nature.

How the Kuna Keep Scientists in Line

In 1983, the Kuna Indians of Panama formally initiated the Project for the Study of the Management of Wildlife Areas of Kuna Yala (PEMASKY). The main purpose of the program, which has received substantial international support since its inception, was to establish and manage a forest reserve of approximately 60,000 hectares on the southern border of Kuna lands, known collectively as Kuna Yala. An important ingredient of the project was to be research carried out by non-Kuna scientists, both Panamanians and those from abroad.

Managing the forest and its creatures was one thing; it was quite another to manage visiting scientists. Most of the researchers showed respect for the region and its human inhabitants. Some, however, did not. From the very start, problems of this sort were handled partially by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama City, a conduit through which many of the scientists passed. STRI officials went to great pains to ensure that their scientists did not jump the leash and stray into the territories of local communities without first securing permission. They also briefed researchers about their responsibilities to the Kuna: leave copies of reports, photographic materials, and plant and animal specimens. On their side, problem cases were taken directly to STRI, which moved rapidly to discipline the errant researcher.

In 1988, the Kuna produced an explicit set of rules in a 26-page manual entitled "Research Program: Scientific Monitoring and Cooperation," with "Information for Researchers" written clearly on the cover. This formal statement contains a general description of the cultural and biological landscape of Kuna territory, a brief history of the Pemasky enterprise, and the set of objectives that fuels the program. The Kuna lay out in detail precisely how researchers are to apply for permission to enter the area, which areas are off limits and which are open ground, and how various behaviors are viewed (plant gathering, animal marking, etc.).

The guidebook is firm yet not overly restrictive. With regard to the use of Kuna assistants, for example, it states: "All researchers should consider the incorporation of Kuna co-researchers, assistants, guides, and informants, with the objective of training Kuna scientists, and achieving a transference of knowledge and technologies.... The principal researcher will consider paying his assistants and other (local) informants." Another important aspect of the program is information in the form of reports: "Each researcher is asked to send two (2) copies of his publication on the research carried out.... If possible, summaries or abstracts should be translated into Spanish."

The Kuna effort is a first step in the right direction.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.