News & Views » News Feature

The perils, and profits, of mining nature

UGA professor defends Chiapas project


Although his tones are mild, Dr. Brent Berlin's voice betrays a hint of weary exasperation.

"The idea seems to be that we're either naive, or just well-meaning dupes of multinational pharmaceutical companies."

The soft-spoken University of Georgia ethnobiologist seems an unlikely combatant in skirmishes between the industrial and developing worlds. But a growing awareness of the daily loss of thousands of acres of green space has lent new urgency to the race to discover and catalog plants and the medicines they might produce. And it has placed Dr. Berlin -- along with dozens of his colleagues here and in Mexico -- square in the sights of critics, who charge that a pioneering project may spell yet another chapter in the saga of Latin American exploitation.

At question is an ambitious program which aims to assess the natural wealth of Chiapas -- a rugged, poverty-ridden region of southern Mexico that has witnessed years of fighting between government troops and rebels. The project also will gather the collective wisdom of the Mayan villagers who have drawn upon that wealth for centuries.

But given the industrial world's history in dealing with developing countries, any discussion of "bioassaying" (cataloging of living species and their properties) and "bioprospecting" inevitably conjures up images of "biopirates" -- machete-swinging corporate mercenaries despoiling pristine forests and eagerly patenting the products and knowledge they reap.

And those concerns are not without merit: Whether it's drug companies quizzing Amazonian tribesmen about the cancer-fighting properties of Brazilian cat's claw or Asian activists fighting patents on pesticide derivatives of India's neem tree, accounts of profiteers making windfalls on native plants and knowledge -- with no return to the indigenous people who nurtured both -- are many and growing.

It's precisely such practices that Berlin hopes to curtail.

"We have to accept that the history of the western world's treatment of our southern neighbors is not something to brag about," says Dr. Berlin, who's overseeing the project. "But things do change. ... But once you've been accused, you're going to be accused forever."

The target of those accusations is ICBG-Maya, a joint project of the Mexican government, the U.S. government's International Collaborative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), UGA, Mexico's College of the Southern Frontier (UNISUR) and a Welsh biotechnology firm. Initially funded in November 1998 with a $2.5 million grant from the federal government, the project is envisioned to last five years, leaving a permanent legacy of communal gardens, a trust fund for community development, and -- in case of any pharmaceutical discoveries -- royalties for the communities involved.

By involving local institutions as well as researchers like Berlin, who, with his wife and fellow UGA professor, Eloise Berlin, have been studying in Chiapas since the '60s, and who speak Spanish as well as local dialects, project organizers hope to craft an equitable, workable formula where all sides can benefit.

Says Brent Berlin: "Our problems have been primarily miscommunication, misunderstanding and basic ideological differences of opinion between those of us who believe you can combine conservation with sustainable development in such a way that benefits the Mayan people of Chiapas, and those who believe that ... 'conservation and development' is an oxymoron."

He points to the ICGB-Maya blueprint as proof that strict safeguards are in place. A formula guarantees local communities 25 percent of any profits that may result from the research, and another 25 percent for biodiversity research. Regardless of any such long-term profit, the project is also setting up communal gardens, cooperatives and archiving the knowledge of plant uses, with an eye to sharing it throughout the region.

"We've made it very clear that the likelihood of us being able to come up with a natural product that would survive the 10 to 12 years needed to turn it into a pharmaceutical product is about like winning the Mexican lottery," says Berlin. Every researcher would love to stumble across the next quinine (a product of the Andean cinchona tree) or Taxol (a cancer drug derived from the bark of the Pacific yew), he says, "but that's very unlikely. So you have to talk about non-monetary benefits."

Such benefits could include plants that might repel pests or weeds, or ease the symptoms of minor illnesses.

"These are not what you'd call monetary benefits, but the people there would spend less on patent medicines, fertilizers, insecticides," he says. "Those are the kinds of benefits that really matter, as opposed to winning the Mexican lottery and discovering a natural product that will cure cancer, AIDS, baldness, impotence and all the rest of the things we gringos in the north would like to see cured. That's not going to happen."

But opposition that has dogged the project since shortly after its 1998 inception re-emerged in October at the Seventh Annual International Conference of Ethnobiology on the UGA campus in Athens. Representatives of the Council of Traditional Doctors and Midwives from Chiapas (COMPITCH) repeated a call to halt the project pending more input from local villagers. The Council also submitted "10 Points of Biopiracy," a set of guidelines it hoped to have adopted by the Congress as guiding principles for all such projects.

The document says residents should give consent for any research done in their area. It also calls upon bioprospectors to assume that every beneficial plant has been purposely cultivated by one or more indigenous groups, unless otherwise demonstrated. Moreover, all groups who utilize a plant must give permission before any collection and refining of those plants may proceed. And areas which are in the midst of natural or military crises should be "off limits" until normalcy returns.

Further guidelines would govern the involvement of pharmaceutical companies and restrict patents, particularly on traditional knowledge.

Despite the efforts of ICGB-Maya to share any benefits, say COMPITCH and others, current conditions just don't allow for such results in reality. In the words of Alejandro Argumedo, a Peruvian Indian who heads the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network, "Bioprospecting is like waking up in the night to find robbers in your home with a bag full of your possessions. When you ask them what's going on, they reply, 'Don't worry, we have a proposal for benefit-sharing.' "

Those concerns notwithstanding, the 10 Points were voted down.

Berlin says nearly every one would effectively ban bioprospecting of any sort -- except for those less concerned with such niceties as government permits and codes of conduct. Berlin fears that, if opponents are successful in shutting down the project, valuable species and knowledge will be lost. Further, he fears, other areas ripe for bioprospecting will remain the province of profiteers as legitimate researchers are shut out.

"The people who will benefit are the true biopirates," he predicts, "who are going to go in no matter you say, or I say, or what anyone says."

None of ICGB-Maya's critics has specifically targeted the project with wrongdoing. At this point, most complaints allege insufficient efforts to get permission from everyone in research areas, or charges that too few resources and information are being shared with locals.

Even the Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International -- a global advocacy group that monitors bio- piracy issues, and which has led the call for a halt on ICGB-Maya activities -- has high praise for ECOSUR, and seems more concerned with the potential for exploitation than with any actual misdeeds.

Nonetheless, it continues to call for a moratorium on the project. In an analysis published in October, the organization concluded: "Although the ICGB project may include well-intentioned motivations and benefits, such as biodiversity and conservation and sustainable economic development, the project would not exist without the end goal of commercial exploitation." Organizers, it concludes, "should give immediate attention to an exit strategy and termination of the project."

"I think that's misinformed," responds Berlin. "The concerns that people have about third- and fourth-world populations being ripped off by individuals in the second and first world are legitimate ... but I don't think it's reasonable to imagine that those concerns are going to lead to the dissolution of the world system. We are becoming a global society, and third- and fourth-world populations ought to be able to participate in the advantages that come with membership in that society."

Protesters want private company out of Stone Mountain Park

Friends of Stone Mountain Park, a grassroots group fighting the commercialization of Stone Mountain, is rallying protesters for a march from downtown Stone Mountain to Confederate Hall in the park.

"Citizens around here have been completely ignored from the very beginning, since 1996 when we got wind of the privatization," says rally organizer Jim Reddick.

The group's main beef is directed at the Silver Dollar City Company, which won the contract from the state to operate Stone Mountain Park. Silver Dollar City also runs Dollywood and several other theme and amusement parks, and Reddick and his fellow protesters are dead set against letting them turn Stone Mountain Park into another cheesy attraction.

"It's now time to stop being polite," he says. The rally will be held Dec. 9, starting at 11 a.m. at the Village of Stone Mountain gazebo, near City Hall. --Michael Wall

Add a comment