Bioprospecting

Can pharmaceutical research give back?

by | Dec 9, 2005

Left: A Chiapas resident gathers medicinal plants by the side of the road. Right: Plants used for medicine grow wild.

In 1998, as the Zapatista uprising continued to simmer in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, two U.S. academic researchers began setting up a “bioprospecting” agreement there. With funds from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups ICBG, a U.S. government-sponsored drug discovery and conservation initiative, University of Georgia ethnobiologists Brent and Elois Ann Berlin began negotiations with Tzeltal and Tzotzil communities over a new form of biotech-mediated trade. Their goal was to send plants and microbes from these communities to a Welsh biotechnology firm, Molecular Nature, Inc., to research possible medical and industrial uses. In partnership with the venerable Mexican research institute, Ecosur, the Berlins established PROMAYA, a Chiapas-based nongovernmental organization that would distribute future benefits back to participating communities, in the form of a small portion of royalties from any resulting products.

This was precisely the kind of arrangement encouraged by the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The multilateral accord has set in motion some powerful changes in the politics of drug discovery and natural products research, not just in Mexico but throughout the world. The CBD mandated that drug and biotechnology companies ensure some form of “equitable returns” for source nations and/or source communities, if they desire continued access to resources from biodiversity-rich climes, most of which are found in the nations of the Southern hemisphere. This benefit-sharing provision dramatically reversed the previous treatment of genetic resources and cultural knowledge as part of the “global commons,” and thus as free for the taking. For conservationists looking for a way to “make biodiversity pay for itself,” benefit-sharing promised to harness the (earning) power of corporate drug discovery by feeding these profits back into developing nations for such diverse purposes as biodiversity conservation, rural and indigenous community development, and scientific infrastructure-building. For many activists, benefit-sharing was a welcome nod in the direction of social justice, finally acknowledging the contribution of Southern nations and peoples to the production of pharmaceutical value.

But the post-1992 history of bioprospecting has not necessarily confirmed these senses of promise. The so-called “Maya ICBG” program barely got off the ground before it was brought to its knees by concerted opposition from a potent coalition of regional, national, and international actors decrying “biopiracy in Chiapas. At stake was not just the volatile question of indigenous rights in what is, arguably, a war zone. Activists voiced concern about “inadequate” processes of consent, about the criteria through which participants would be included, about and the “meager” returns on offer.The broader conditions of political legitimacy for these kinds of exchanges, given the notable absence of a national law regulating bioprospecting contracts, were also called into question. Under heavy pressure, the sponsoring bodies in Mexico and the U.S. withdrew their support from the project, and the Maya ICBG was canceled in 2001.

The project’s rather spectacular demise placed Mexico at the center of heated international debates over the very possibility of turning natural products drug discovery into a form of “equitable” exchange. It highlighted, in rather stark fashion, some of the primary questions haunting these collaborations in their many forms. How much, and in what currency (royalties, technology transfer, scientific training, community development projects?) should corporations pay for access to plants and local or traditional knowledge about their uses? To whom, precisely, should benefits be directed (national institutions, indigenous communities, academic researchers?), and on what basis? With “equitable returns” often offered at between one and three percent of resulting royalties, and with a projected 10 to 20 year lag time before a drug (and resulting royalties) will be produced, critics of bioprospecting in Mexico and internationally have argued that these contracts are simply a dressed-up version of the same old “bio-piracy,” a mere continuation of centuries of misappropriation of plants and traditional knowledge.

Without doubt, controversies over bioprospecting have offeredvivid reminders that identifying and attributing the dominion of plants and knowledge is first and foremost a political project. In Mexico, post-Revolutionary nationalist stories have named medicinal plants—la herbolaria Mexicana—a distinctively mestizo, national legacy, while much detailed ethnobotanical work has shown how well-traveled and cosmopolitan medicinal plants can be. At the same time, community claims over biological and cultural resources have become absolutely central to indigenous struggles over sovereignty and self-determination. These different understandings, pitting national and community dominion against one another, now find their way into the very heart of bioprospecting politics and practice. The CBD puts forth conflicting notions of sovereignty: it essentially sets up nation-states and “communities” as competing claimants, thus threatening to irritate longstanding wounds in many national bodies politic. This is certainly the case in Mexico, where indigenous communities, led most visibly since 1994 by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, have been fighting an uphill battle for various forms of recognition from the state, including political and territorial sovereignty.

For many companies with a wary eye on the new ethic of “equitable returns,” the demise of the Maya ICBG is precisely the kind of political “disaster” that they desperately hope to avoid as they confront the prospect of setting up benefit-sharing collaborations. Declaring themselves “daunted” by the prospect of negotiating benefit- sharing contracts with indigenous peoples, many companies, national biodiversity policy officials, and university researchers have stated a clear preference for screening resources considered “safely in the public domain.” In line with the CBD’s new alignment of rights over resources, this recourse to public resources means recourse to national resources.

In a separate ICBG project involving the University of Arizona, the drug company Wyeth Ayerst, and researchers from Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, participating Latin American scientists worked with a wide range of public, or at least, not-quite-community resources, in an effort to establish alternative strategies for linking resource extraction to benefit-sharing, which would not depend on extracting plants and knowledge from indigenous communities. These methods included working with medicinal plants sold in urban markets, weeds on the sides of the road and knowledge published in anthropologists’ articles, petri dishes in private university laboratories and vines growing in friends’ backyards.

Or consider the strategy pursued by the Institute of Biotechnology at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) in their 1997 bioprospecting contract with the San Diego-based biotechnology company Diversa. This effort was designed to screen microbes on government protected lands; participating scientists and government officials hoped that working on federally protected biosphere reserves (and working with microbes rather than ostensibly more “culturally” entangled medicinal plants) would insulate them from the thorny question of community rights. Neither preventative effort proved to guarantee the long-term viability of these agreements.

The UNAM-Diversa project was hit by the same storm of public opposition that undid Maya ICBG, as Mexico City journalists, activists, and academics pointedly questioned the legitimacy of UNAM to broker access to national resources; for its part, the “Latin America ICBG”effort has been scaled down, particularly in Mexico, partly because of concerns about the political viability of prospecting in that country at all, and in part due to a lack of promising products from plant-based leads.

Indeed, these latter efforts to prospect in public reflect the general direction of bioprospecting in general. Major pharmaceutical companies and the ICBG program itself are moving away from working with plants (and their people, whoever they may be) altogether, favoring microbes from the ocean floor, data stored in bioinformatics databases and other “troublefree” collecting sites. This shifts the kinds of political and ethical dilemmas we might identify in these contracts: not that “people” are being included badly—the argument that brought down the Maya ICBG project—but that “people” are not being included at all.

Fall 2004/Winter 2005Volume III, Number 1

Cori Hayden is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2003).

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