Chiapas Maya hold-off bio-prospecting
A project to bio-prospect Maya traditional knowledge of medicinal plants has been cancelled as a result of a tremendous outpouring of opposition among the indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico.
Indigenous responses to bio-prospecting or bio-piracy, as some call it, are increasingly well-informed. While the science, research methodologies and ultimate losses and benefits involved are not always well-understood, nevertheless, a visceral and quite straightforward challenge has galvanized to the idea of giving up tribally developed knowledge, including the plant materials and germ-plasm itself, as well as matter from peoples' bodies.
Indigenous peoples, already in recovery from the assault upon their cultural and land bases, are seeing the scientific invasions of the past few decades as affronts to tribal dignity. The wanton use of people as subjects and even as guinea pigs; the tendency by scientists to withhold information from their subjects and even to manipulate them has been a damnation of Native peoples for so long that good defenses are now emerging to confront such attitudes. An ongoing case of that is that faced by the University of Michigan as repository of decades of collections of blood and tissue samples from the Yanomami people, who are asking for it back.
In the Chiapas case, the International Collaborative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), a U.S. initiative, involved the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in collaboration with the University of Georgia-Athens (UGA). It also included the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico, and Molecular Nature Limited (MNL), a Welsh biotechnology company. Entitled "Drug Discovery and Biodiversity among the Maya in Mexico," the $2.5 million dollar ICBG's Maya project, funded by the U.S. government in September 1998, was to spearhead a major new development.
It was challenged by a coalition of Native medicine people and midwives, practitioners who use their medicines, have a proprietary and reciprocal relation with the plants and animal medicines. For more than two years, indigenous activists assisted the elders in their quest to have the Indian communities gain at least enough time to learn more and inform themselves properly as to their rights. The medicinal plant repertoire of the Maya in Chiapas constitutes a fertile body and knowledge and it is critically important that they thoroughly assess and understand the value of their collective patrimony.
The scientific project was not so horribly designed but erred seriously in that it did not truly consult with the cultural bases of the populations they intended to sample and study. Inevitably, of course, the project would need to appropriate matter and concept from the cultural and spiritual bases. The indigenous peoples, as they realized what was happening, responded negatively.
Chiapas is known for its Indian rigor. Pride, dignity and deep cultural inheritance persist among the Maya and other Native peoples of the region. While western science for several centuries summarily rejected indigenous medicinal knowledge as nothing more than superstition, the practices of such ancient knowledge persisted because the Indian users themselves continued to believe in their own knowledge, their own medicines. All too often, university projects assume they can come into such populations and gather such knowledge at will, assuming as well that the "locals" will only be too happy to give it all away.
To be fair, as criticism mounted and rejection became apparent, the project designers continued to realign and include more consultation and training of indigenous peoples into their activities, but this came too late and the village folks were not budging. Finally, after two years of contention, the most local university in the loop, the project's Chiapas-based partner, ECOSUR - El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, pulled the plug. It appeared the Native population would get their requested respite from immediate and massive bio-exploration.
So it goes. And so it should go. The intellectual and cultural property rights of indigenous peoples need a great deal of attention. The new scientific revolution is only the latest in waves of modernity to wash over the indigenous world. The Native communities in the Chiapas case are asking for the time to assess what they have and how to best develop their own cultural, medicinal and healing systems. The DNA sampling and other samplings from plant and animal and particularly from human specimens does not sit well with tribal peoples.
As the news spreads that genetic contamination of corn has been found in remote areas of Mexico, traditional people who value their seed varieties, often overlapping those who know and use herbal medicines, understand that they are holding a collective treasure trove of knowledge and healing potentials. Western institutions that would move to work with this knowledge need to exhibit a full commitment to complete informed consent from their subjects and/or partners. Communities as holders of collective patrimonies must and often do understand their rights. They need good scientific partners who will help them develop, according to their cultures and collective agreements, including financial gains, from the patrimonies of their peoples.
In Chiapas, the Consejo de M?dicos y Parteras Ind?genas
Tradicionales de Chiapas - COMPITCH, (firstname.lastname@example.org), has requested a moratorium on all contracting for bio-prospecting. They fought a substantial external bio-prospecting initiative to a standstill and have gained for themselves the opportunity to institute proper study for the protection of their indigenous traditional knowledge.
In very important ways, theirs is a major victory.