Drug Firms Are Accused of Stealing Poor Nations' Traditions, Biology

Associated Press

RANCHERIA NABALAM, Mexico -- When a pregnant woman goes into labor, Hilaria Rodriguez does what generations of Mayan midwives before her have done: She hikes into the hills to find medicinal plants that will speed up delivery, stop excessive bleeding or relieve the mother's pain. For nearly a half century, Ms. Rodriguez, 69, has practiced herbal medicine both to honor the traditions of her ancestors and to meet basic necessities. Until five years ago, there was no medical clinic or pharmacy in this poor village tucked in the highlands of southern Chiapas state. "We are still curing ourselves with the plants," she said. "It is what allows us to survive." It also has drawn the interest of big pharmaceutical companies, which are developing the medical traditions of Mayans, as well as indigenous peoples around the world, into high-priced drugs. The practice has brought an escalating battle over ownership of natural resources.

While the process of collecting genetic resources, known as "bioprospecting," is nothing new, it has increased exponentially over the past 20 years, spurred by dramatic advances in genetic engineering that allowntists have tapped jungles, rainforests, deserts and farms in Latin America to develop new agricultural products and modern medicines ranging from aspirin to the anti-malarial drug quinine. But a wave of resistance is growing among newly politically active Indians fighting centuries of exploitation, and from governments slowly awakening to the need to protect the right to benefit from dwindling natural resources.

In Mexico, an organization representing Indian doctors, backed by aid groups and academics, waged such fierce opposition to a bioprospecting project in Chiapas that Mexico's environmental agency stopped issuing permits last fall. The move resulted in at least the partial suspension of that program and another in Mexico's deserts. Opponents say that in the absence of national and international laws to regulate bioprospecting, the practice is nothing more than biopiracy -- the expropriation of genetic materials with no fair return to the people they are taken from.

The critics worry that companies may patent the genetic materials they discover -- preventing communities in the future from using their own resources -- and claim scientists fail to obtain full permission from local populations before launching their research programs. Both supporters and detractors of bioprospecting claim that the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty designed to protect host countries and Indian communities, is riddled with loopholes and poorly implemented. The U.S. never ratified the convention.

The new administration of President Vicente Fox has pledged to make the issue a priority, said Victor Manuel Villalobos, executive secretary for Mexico's Intersecretarial Commission on Biosecurity, a collaboration of six Cabinet secretariats. Mr. Villalobos said the government plans to create national centers for the preservation of genetic resources and to pass a law guaranteeing benefits for all Mexicans, including the Indians who live in the most biologically rich areas. "Mexico is a mega-diverse country biologically, but it has not been protected scientifically or legally," Mr. Villalobos said. "The Fox administration is going to elevate this theme to its important place."

The change can't come soon enough in Chiapas, where a full-scale war has broken out between the Council of Traditional Indigenous Doctors and Midwives from Chiapas and the Maya-International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups. The latter is a collaboration between several U.S. government agencies, the British company Molecular Nature Ltd., the University of Georgia at Athens and the San Cristobal de las Casas branch of the College of the Southern Border. Program director Brent Berlin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia at Athens, said the project's goals were to combine the search for new drugs and agricultural products with programs to help Mayan communities. 

Such programs included training students in scientific research, helping develop profitable new uses for medicinal plants and conducting investigations on local health problems. Researchers also planted medicinal gardens in eight communities designed to promote traditional medicine. Mr. Berlin said he received permission to proceed from nearly 50 communities representing more than 30,000 people. Under agreements forged with the participants, the communities would share any profits if commercial products were developed, but Mr. Berlin said he warned them that financial windfalls were a long shot. But the Council of Traditional Indigenous Doctors claims Mr. Berlin ignored a large number of communities opposed to the project and failed to truthfully explain his group's motives to those who agreed to participate.

They also claim the program has damaged the cooperative spirit of Indian communities long used to trading knowledge and customs at no cost. "They get together a small group and try to work out these individual negotiations in the absence of any law," said Rafael Alarcon Lavin, an adviser to the council. "Without law, whatever project arrives in Mexico and whatever they do is going to be biopiracy." The irony is that the Maya-International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups was designed to be a model in benefit-sharing and respect for local communities, said Joshua Rosenthal, biodiversity program director at the Fogarty International Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which administers the program."What we've tried to do is work hand in hand with governments and communities to provide examples of how this can be done in an ethical and efficient way," Mr. Rosenthal said. 

The Chiapas dispute underscores the complex moral and ethical issues involved in bioprospecting, said Arthur Caplan, director of the center for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "History, culture, religious views about plants and nature and our relationship to them -- and also just plain economics -- they're all interconnected here," Mr. Caplan said. In Mayan and many other Indian communities, plants are seen as gifts from the gods -- bestowed on traditional healers to cure illnesses afflicting both body and soul -- and they are treated with reverence and respect. "The plants are not mine," said Ms. Rodriguez, speaking in the Tzeltal Indian language. "They aren't of anyone. They are of all the people. No one should sell them or authorize anyone to take them."

 Rancheria Nabalam is a tiny, rural community about 50 miles east of the highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Many of its residents live in tin-roofed shacks with no transportation to hospitals miles away and scarcely enough money to put tortillas on the table. Buying expensive medicine is out of the question. "We have always lived in the mud, under the rain, with a lot of sickness,"  Ms. Rodriguez said. "When there is a problem, we can usually find a solution in the plants."

The Fox administration will try to develop laws with all of bioprospecting's complex issues in mind, Mr. Villalobos, the government official, said. He said it would invite scientists, civilians and Indian representatives to participate. Mr. Caplan, at the University of Pennsylvania, said the international community needs to come up with a worldwide treaty that both acknowledges the potential scientific value of bioprospecting and the necessity to share its benefits equitably. "It makes no sense to put up barriers to medical cures or the possibility of finding better food. That can't be in anyone's interest in the long run," he said. "The trick is to come up with a fair, just economic return."