This is VERY IMPORTANT -- and follows on a similar deal with the UNAM
mentioned at the end

David Barkin                   Professor of Economics
University Autonoma Metropolitana   Unidad Xochimilco
Apartado 23 - 181,        16000 Xochimilco, DF MEXICO
Tel: (525) 724-5100               Fax: (525) 724-5235

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Rural Advancement Foundation International  |  [EMAIL PROTECTED]
Usted puede obtener la version en castellano de esta informacion en nuestra
pagina web: http:/

News Release -1 December 1999

Biopiracy Project in Chiapas, Mexico
Denounced by Mayan Indigenous Groups

University of Georgia Refuses to Halt Project

Eleven indigenous peoples' organizations are demanding that a US$2.5
million, US-government funded bioprospecting program suspend its activities
in Chiapas, Mexico. Despite the protest by local Mayan organizations, the
University of Georgia (US) says it will not halt the five-year project,
which aims to collect and evaluate thousands of plants and microorganisms
used in traditional medicine by Mayan communities.

Collectively known as the Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and
Healers of Chiapas (Consejo Estatal de Parteras y M╚dicos Ind╠genas
Tradicionales de Chiapas), the eleven Mayan organizations are denouncing
the bioprospecting project, and they are asking other indigenous people in
Chiapas to refuse to cooperate with the researchers. The project is led by
the University of Georgia, in cooperation with a Mexican university
research center, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), and Molecular
Nature Ltd., a biotechnology company based in Wales, U.K.

What is the Chiapas ICBG Project?
The five-year project "Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of
Mexico," now in its second year of operation, will receive a total grant of
US$2.5 million dollars from the US government's International Cooperative
Biodiversity Groups (ICBG). The ICBG is a consortium of US federal
agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National
Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that
awards grants to public and commercial research institutions that conduct
bioprospecting/biopiracy programs in the South. The ICBG's self-stated goal
is to promote drug discovery from natural sources, biodiversity
conservation and sustainable economic growth in developing countries. For
additional information, go to:

Using indigenous knowledge to guide its research, the Chiapas ICBG project
aims to discover, isolate and evaluate pharmacologically important
compounds from the plant species and microorganisms employed in traditional
Mayan medicine. The tropical mountains of Chiapas contain one of the
richest repositories of plant and animal biodiversity in the world. Over
the centuries, the Maya have developed a rich medical knowledge. An
estimated 6000 plant species thrive in the area, thousands of them used by
the Maya to treat illness. All promising biological samples will be
screened for their activity against cancer, diseases associated with
HIV-AIDS, central nervous system disorders, cardiovascular disease, and
gastrointestinal, respiratory/pulmonary, skin disorders and for
contraception. The Project will also conduct a comprehensive botanical
survey of the Central Chiapas Highlands, and it will promote sustainable
harvest and production of selected species that show high potential for
economic development. The project estimates that it will ultimately
identify approximately 2000 unique compounds that will be chemically
profiled by Molecular Nature, Ltd. the project's commercial partner based
in the UK. A duplicate set of plants collected by the ICBG program in
Chiapas will be deposited at the University of Georgia's Herbarium in
Athens, Georgia.

Local Opposition
The bioprospecting program has outraged some indigenous peoples'
organizations in Chiapas who claim that their indigenous knowledge and
resources are being stolen.  In a written declaration distributed in
Chiapas, the Council stated: "We, as traditional indigenous healers have
organized for the past 15 years to assert and improve our customary medical
practices... We have appealed to national and state authorities to suspend
this project. Now we are appealing to all indigenous peoples to refuse to
allow the researchers of ECOSUR to remove plants and information from our

According to Sebastian Luna, an indigenous Tzeltal spokesperson from the
Council, "the project is a robbery of traditional indigenous knowledge and
resources, with the sole purpose of producing pharmaceuticals that will not
benefit the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for
thousands of years."

"Furthermore," continues Luna, "the project explicitly proposes to patent
and privatize resources and knowledge that have always been collectively
owned... Besides being totally contradictory to our culture and traditions,
the project creates conflict within our communities as some individuals,
pressured by the grave economic situation, collaborate with the researchers
for a few pesos or tools."

"The project, led by anthropologist Brent Berlin of the University of
Georgia, is plundering our knowledge and taking plant samples from the
communities in Chiapas, returning almost nothing in exchange," adds Luna.
Professor Berlin, who is a past president and member of the International
Society of Ethnobiology (ISE), will host the ISE's Congress in October,
2000 in Georgia on the topic of benefit sharing with indigenous
communities. "We believe he is openly violating the Society's Code of
Ethics," concludes Luna.  That Code, in its "Principle of Prior Informed
Consent and Veto" states:

  "the prior informed consent of all peoples and their communities must be
obtained before any research is undertaken. Indigenous peoples, traditional
societies and local communities have the right to veto any programme,
project, or study that affects them. Providing prior informed consent
presumes that all potentially affected communities will be provided
complete information regarding the purpose and nature of the research
activities and the probable results, including all reasonably foreseeable
benefits and risks of harm (be they tangible or intangible) to the affected
communities." (emphasis added) The full text is available at:

RAFI contacted Brent Berlin at the University of Georgia and asked if the
demands being made by the indigenous peoples' organizations in Chiapas are
grounds for suspending the bioprospecting program in Chiapas.  Berlin, one
of the authors of the ISE's Code of Ethics, rejected the idea. "I'm
convinced that that question would not even be asked if these groups were
fully informed about the Project."

"It's really critical," Berlin told RAFI, "that you stress our willingness
to resolve our differences [in Chiapas]. The concerns of the Consejo are
not being ignored. The issue is serious and must be resolved so that
everyone is aware of what the solution is. The main problem is that we've
not been able to sit down and talk," said Berlin.

According to Rafael Alarcon, advisor to the Council, the agreement signed
by ECOSUR, the University of Georgia and Molecular Nature Ltd., also
"flaunts Mexican law, as these institutions have not consulted with or
obtained the prior informed consent of the affected communities.  We
believe the agreement also violates international agreements that Mexico
has signed, including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity -
particularly Article 8j which addresses traditional knowledge and equitable
benefit sharing, and the ILO 169 Convention on Indigenous Rights."

Alarcon continues, "ECOSUR invited one of the organizational members of the
State Council, OMIECH (the Chiapas Indigenous Healers Organization) to
participate in the bioprospecting agreement. They thought that the
indigenous healers would accept this project in exchange for a promise to
establish what they call a "benefit sharing" fund in the future. During the
meeting, we explained our disagreement with the objectives and methods of
the project. ECOSUR assured us that the project would not begin until, at
the very least, all the requirements in existing Mexican law were
fulfilled. However, they have already begun to remove samples from several
communities in Chiapas, and in June, 1999, they showed us a contract signed
by the three parties."

Whose NGO?
"According to this contract," continues Alarcon, "the signatories (the
University of Georgia, ECOSUR, and Molecular Nature, Ltd.) have created a
non-profit organization called PROMAYA (Protection of Mayan Intellectual
Property Rights), which will act as their civil society counterpart."
PROMAYA will set up a trust fund for Mayan communities, and it will decide
how to disburse any royalties that accrue from the sale of drugs that
result from ICBG research in Chiapas. According to Alarcon, "The creation
of this NGO by the project clearly demonstrates the lack of will of the
researchers to ensure appropriate consultation with the traditional
cultures and true authorities of the communities. In essence, they create
their own dialogue partner, and invite participants and organizations that
will not question their way of working, probably in exchange for a tiny
scrap of the US$2.5 million that this project has received from the US

Public funds for private profit
Since 1993, the US government's ICBG has awarded 11 grants (3 are renewals)
for bioprospecting totaling US $18.5 million in 12 countries of the South
(Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Panama, Suriname, Madagascar, Vietnam,
Laos, Nigeria, Cameroon, Costa Rica). Commercial partners in ICBG-funded
projects include transnational pharmaceutical and agrochemical  companies
Glaxo-Wellcome, Bristol Myers Squibb, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Dow Elanco
Agrosciences, Wyeth-Ayerst, American Cyanamid, and Monsanto.

  "The use of public money to subsidize biopiracy is a form of corporate
welfare for the Gene Giants" said  Hope Shand, RAFI's Research Director,
referring to the giant transnational enterprises that dominate agribusiness
and pharmaceutical industries.

"These companies aim to synthesize and modify active biological compounds
in the laboratory that are derived from the resources and knowledge of
indigenous communities, because the companies' goal is to patent,
privatize, and profit from biodiversity," explains Shand.  "The Chiapas
ICBG program has a clearly defined protocol for intellectual property on
any pharmaceutical product that might result from the research conducted in
Chiapas. It operates on the principle - at least on paper - that the
biological samples belong to Mexico and that some undisclosed portion of
royalties will flow back to the Highland Maya of Chiapas - via PROMAYA. The
reality is that long-term benefits may never materialize, and many local
indigenous people reject both intellectual property and the process
established for benefit-sharing via PROMAYA.. The critical issue now is
that the project is apparently proceeding not only without proper
consultation with the affected communities, but also against the express
wishes of a very significant sector of the community," said RAFI's Shand.

Legal Biopiracy?
Dr Alejandro Nadal, Researcher at the Program of Science and Technology at
Colegio de Mexico (a postgraduate research institute) has publicly
denounced another biodiversity contract in Mexico signed by the Universidad
Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). That project involves a contract between the
Diversa Corporation (US) and UNAM, in which the researchers of the
Biotechnology Institute of UNAM are obliged, according to the terms of the
contract, to provide samples of unique micro-organisms from natural
protected areas of Mexico to Diversa for a mere US$50 per sample.

Dr Nadal, commenting on the Chiapas project, states that "similar to the
UNAM-Diversa contract, the project in Chiapas is not legally valid, as it
violates even the quite limited Mexican laws. This kind of contract is pure
theft of the unique biological resources of Mexico and of the indigenous
resources and knowledge of the traditional communities. These resources
are, according to the law, under the control and sovereignty of the State
of Mexico. Both ECOSUR and UNAM are making decisions about a collective
resource which they do not have any right to."

Dr. Nadal adds, "We are facing a worrisome number of these kinds of
contracts, all of which aim to appropriate and privatize resources that
have always been communal and for the common good. Because Mexico is so
culturally and biologically diverse, large transnational corporations
working for medicinal and agricultural purposes are eager to harvest our
resources. These projects should be suspended immediately as they are
contrary to existing laws"

The Council of Indigenous Traditional Midwives and Healers of the State of
Chiapas demands that the project in Chiapas be suspended and that any
project of this kind undergo a thorough review of Mexican laws to protect
their cultures and resources. They also demand that any similar projects
comply with international obligations arising from the Convention on
Biological Diversity - particularly its article 8j - and the ILO 169
Convention on Indigenous Rights.  Further, there should be implementation
at the national level of Farmers' Rights as negotiated within the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  The Council also cites the
pressing need for a wide and informed discussion about the need, the
objectives and the benefits of these kinds of projects, including
discussions about who benefits.  Finally, they demand that local health
projects designed by the communities themselves should be supported,
according to communities' own needs and priorities, and using the knowledge
and resources of traditional indigenous medicine.

For more information:
Consejo Estatal de Parteras y M╚dicos Ind╠genas Tradicionales  de Chiapas,
SebastiĚn Luna, Rafael Alarc█n, Antonio P╚rez M╚ndez, Margarito Ruiz,
Isidro L█pez Rodr╠guez. Phone/fax +52-67-8 54 38 (from Mexico 01-967-8 54

Dr. Alejandro Nadal
Tel + 52-5-4493089

Hope Shand
RAFI-USA Research Director
Tel +1-919-960 5223

Silvia Ribeiro

International Office
Phone: 1-204-453 52 59

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine 
of international copyright law.
           Tsonkwadiyonrat (We are ONE Spirit)

Reply via email to