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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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The Mexican state of Chiapas contains an abundance of medicinal plants used by the indigenous healers in the region. A few years ago, an American scientist working there began a project to search for drugs based on these plants, as well as preserve traditional knowledge and provide income to local communities. But some local people accused the project of bio-piracy and the project was cancelled. Tatiana Schreiber reports on what went wrong.


TOOMEY: The Mexican state of Chiapas is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, thanks, in part, to the many medicinal plants used by the indigenous people there. A few years ago, an American scientist working in the region launched a bio-prospecting project to search for drugs based on these plants. The effort was also designed to preserve traditional knowledge and generate income for local people. But opponents called the project "bio-piracy" and it generated so much controversy it had to be cancelled. Supporters say the product's demise is a loss, both for science and the local community. Tatiana Schreiber has our report.


SCHREIBER: Don Antonio Perez Mendez is a short man with a big grin. He always has a smile as he tends to customers at the small herbal medicine store of an indigenous healer's group in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the highlands of Chiapas. A customer asks if it's safe for a pregnant woman to take this cough syrup.

Photo: Tatiana SchreiberDon Antonio Pe'req Perez, President of COMPITCH,
Council of of Organizations of Traditional Healers
and Midwives of Chiapas.
(Photo: Tatiana Schreiber)


SCHREIBER: The shop, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town, is threadbare. There's a two burner gas stove for preparing herbal syrups, tinctures and salves, one long table for packaging and labeling medicines, and several tall wooden cabinets containing drawer after drawer of dried local plants.


SCHREIBER: An older man, a woman and a small boy sit on the concrete floor of a room just off the store, packaging a mixture of dried herbs from a big pile in front of them. They say this combination of plants is good for calming the nerves and helping you sleep. Along with Don Antonio, they're members of Omiech, a group of indigenous healers and midwives from this part of Chiapas. Don Antonio says one of their goals is to pass on their knowledge about the Mayan system of medicine to the next generation.


VOICEOVER: Because our first parents, our grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents transmitted this, they used six kinds of medicines, which they cured with candles, with incense, with alcohol, with animals, with stones and with plants. This is how it was from the beginning, before the Spanish. For this reason, the knowledge that we are rescuing and promoting has been known from the beginning.

SCHREIBER: Don Antonio says the Mayan medical system is a holistic one that uses not only the six kinds of treatments, but also prayer, taking the pulse to diagnose illness, and eating or not eating certain foods. It's the complexities of the whole system that need to be passed on, but most agree there's great danger of this knowledge being lost.

BERLIN: The real enemy to the conservation of traditional knowledge, and to its promotion, are the younger generations of the societies with whom we're working.

SCHREIBER: Dr. Brent Berlin is an ethnobiologist and anthropologist who studied Mayan medicinal plants in Chiapas for the past four decades.

BERLIN: The traditional knowledge is not in vogue, and they've learned the lesson well. That to be a member of modern society, first thing you would like to do is to treat that knowledge, the traditional knowledge, as garbage, and to get down to the pharmacy as quickly as you can to buy all that good stuff that the West has laid on us.

SCHREIBER: To counter that notion, Berlin conceived of a project that would promote the use of local herbal medicine. He says a critical part of the effort would have been a comprehensive survey of plant species in the region.

BERLIN: First of all, we'd know what was here in a way that we don't know at the moment. And on the basis of that knowledge be able to say, "Okay, as far as I can tell, of the 5,000 species of the region, these species are documented only in this little small crevice, or this little small valley of such and such. That region is a region for serious ecological conservation efforts."

Photo: Tatiana SchreiberActivists denounce biopiracy at the First Conference
for Biological and Cultural Diversity in June, 2001, Chiapas, Mexico.
(Photo: Tatiana Schreiber)

SCHREIBER: The project received a grant from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, or ICBG, a U.S. government effort. The money was to have funded ongoing research into medicinal plants and their uses, as well as bio-prospecting--that's the search for potential pharmaceuticals, often involving private drug companies. Conservation and community development were also part of the plan. Project partners included a U.S. and a Mexican university, as well as an organization, not yet established, that was to represent the Mayan peoples. A fourth partner was a European company that would carry out any drug development to come out of the research. But when news of private industry participation and the possibility of patents reached the indigenous healers organizations, they were worried.

At the herbal medicine shop Don Antonio stirs a mixture of plants simmering in a big metal pot.


VOICEOVER: What will happen later with our children, grandchildren, about using our plants? If they patent, it means that someone else would own it... this person....So we began to prepare ourselves. We organized to stop the project.

SCHREIBER: The indigenous healers called it "biopirateria," bio-piracy. Carlos Gomez is a Chol Indian who works with Don Antonio at the shop.


VOICEOVER: Our conception of the world is that, for us, all knowledge developed by Indian peoples we take as owners, but in a collective form, not an individual form. That's why we reject the patents on life, because we consider it as life. Why? Because it's what gives us life, no? Medicine, then, is part of us. It gives us life.

SCHREIBER: Supporters of the ICBG project acknowledge that this idea of collective ownership of knowledge and resources is a challenge to existing patent law. But they say if the project had moved forward, they could have negotiated this complex terrain in a way that would have benefited the Mayan Indians. Supporters also claim that the healers' groups were unduly influenced by non-indigenous Mexican advisors, and they say international anti-globalization groups also played a role. The bio-prospecting project epitomized two of these activist rallying points. They're opposed to all patents on life, and they fear the concentration of profits in the hands of large corporations.


SCHREIBER: At this meeting, which was organized by several traditional healers' groups with the help of outside advisors, Indian participants are learning about bio-prospecting and patenting.


SCHREIBER: The question of whether one can patent an entire plant is complicated. Mexican patent law prohibits it but U.S. and European patent laws do not, so, in fact, whole plants have been patented, making their use by others subject to fines. But these patents are currently in dispute. Other complexities, left out of the workshop, include the idea that to be patented something must be new, never before isolated, or it must be used in a novel way. And the workshop doesn't mention proposals in the ICBG scheme that would have allowed the indigenous groups to veto any proposed patent. Critics of the project point out, though, that in its procedures for obtaining informed consent from the indigenous communities the word "patent" was never even mentioned, something Dr. Berlin admits.

BERLIN: No, we have not presented a notion about what a patent is, no, we have not. I'm not certain how that would be done, and I know that our detractors have not thought about how it would be done. In such a way as that I can sit down with Dona Maria--okay, you guys have talked about what patents are, and she can tell me what a patent is.
This is a very difficult thing for all of us to do.

SCHREIBER: What researchers did do was visit each community and present a short theatre piece in that town's indigenous language in which they talked about the remote chance of any profits ensuing from the research.

BERLIN: No one has ever claimed that it is the only and best way to do it. I can make the claim that we have gone further than any other bio-prospecting project in history in trying to outline what it is that we're doing, why we're doing it, and what are the potential benefits and dangers in doing it.

SCHREIBER: Berlin went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a new proposal that would focus on defining informed consent. What must it include? How wide a community of people must be involved?


SCHREIBER: Dr. Berlin is fluid in Tzeltal, the Mayan language spoken in the highland community of Oxchuc. He's handing out copies of a new book to people who helped start botanical gardens that were part of the ICBG project. The book's a compendium of local traditional medical practices and its author is Elois Ann Berlin, a medical anthropologist and Berlin's spouse and research partner. Both Berlins are tall and white, standing several heads above their Tzeltal colleagues. Brent Berlin says the project's detractors were quick to latch onto the idea of gringo North Americans once again plundering indigenous knowledge, but not all local indigenous people were opposed to the project.


Sylviano Encino is one of the Indians from Oxchuc that worked with Dr. Berlin. Over coffee at the local institute where Berlin works, Encino says his group supports patenting.


VOICEOVER: Because we know that if there were plants from which a patentable medicine comes from, who will be happy? Both of us are happy. Why? Because, in the long term, we need a better future. It's a social benefit for us. It's a social help. Well, economically speaking, it's what we want.

SCHREIBER: Encino says his group was already benefitting from the documentation and exchange of traditional knowledge between communities, part of the initial stage at the ICBG project. But opponents say as long as indigenous rights to control their natural resources are in question, and as long as privatization of what had been public knowledge is part of the package, they're against any bio-prospecting project in Mexico.


SCHREIBER: At the Museum of Mayan Medicine, in San Cristobal, prayers that are an essential part of the Mayan health system play over a loudspeaker. Agripino Bautista, a guide at the museum, says opponents of the Chiapas bio-prospecting project aren't opposed to sharing their knowledge, or even to the commercialization of their product.


VOICEOVER: We are in favor of it, but we are against domination and the way that others impose their own ideology so that we can't compete. We want to express our own opinion and have it respected like they want to be respected. Well, they should also respect us.

SCHREIBER: For now, the ICBG Maya project is off the table. Although Berlin's new proposal was approved, the Mexican college involved in the project recently announced the complete cancellation of the effort, saying the political climate is too contentious to allow it to go forward.

Joshua Rosenthal is with the National Institutes of Health where the ICBG projects are coordinated. He says the agency never anticipated the degree of controversy the project would generate.

ROSENTHAL: Over time, the drumbeat of the accusations were primarily what people heard, and the complexities of multi-party public/private research-based enterprises are really too hard to communicate in soundbites, in any language, to anybody.

SCHREIBER: Rosenthal and other participants in the ICBG Maya project say its loss shuts down not only important scientific research, but discussion about how to pursue bio-prospecting ethically. Opponents are claiming a victory for indigenous people who want to develop their own agendas for both conserving the biological richness of Chiapas and developing its economic potential. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber.



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