Who Owns An Herb's Healing Power?
Brazil's Indians take path toward medicinal patents
If multinational corporations are going to claim property rights in ancient plant formulas, herbs and healing methods, why shouldn't indigenous people do likewise? But can the "property rights" game be played fairly, or will it always be corrupted by the powerful? Here are some portions of a recent story by the Reuters news service.
by Andrei KhalipThe poison on an arrow that paralyzes a wild beast in the jungle and a pill that can relax our tense muscles have something in common - they both come from the curare plant discovered by Brazilian Indians.
Now, the indigenous people of Brazil want this type of link between primitive hunting innovation and modern pharmaceutical technology to be recognized as a property right that could bring much-needed cash to needy tribes, some of them on the brink of extinction.
In their crusade, Brazilian officials and Indian representatives this week will take a declaration from a convention of Indian spiritual leaders and witch doctors to the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organization meeting in Geneva.
"There is no law defending indigenous traditions, and all the models are for the ideas and science of the white man," said Marcos Terena, chief coordinator of Indian rights program with the government's Funai Indian protection agency.
"We are also trying to prevent piracy in genetic resources, in biodiversity on our lands," said Terena, who comes from Terena tribe in the Pantanal region in central western Brazil.
The government's National Institute for Industrial Property (INPI) that handles patents and trademarks in Brazil sponsored a meeting on the issue in the northeastern city of Sao Luis, capital of Maranhao state, in early December.
Twenty-three witch doctors and shamans, some wearing feathers and leaf-skirts, represented various regions of Brazil, stretching from the hilly south with moderate climate to the Amazon rain forest and to the arid northeast. Among the tribes represented were the Quajajara, Xavante, Warairo and Crao.
"They have the knowledge, and our aim is to protect their knowledge as intellectual property ... it's a national priority," said Jose Graca Aranha, INPI president.
EMBOLDENED BY AIDS DRUGS VICTORY
Brazil, Graca Aranha said, was one of the first countries to raise the issue of copyright for traditional knowledge and is the only one taking concrete proposals to Geneva.
"Many big pharmaceutical and other companies are using it to make money, with no benefits whatsoever for the indigenous community," Graca Aranha said.
He explained that patents normally cover more advanced stages of scientific research, while the basics such as curare qualities discovered by Indians or contraceptive properties of rupulumini plant, are taken for granted.
Indians are inspired by Brazil's success in brokering this year's World Trade Organization deal on patents that will give poor countries better access to discounts on AIDS drugs. They hope their case will gain more weight now.
Indians make clear they are not against progress and science. "We are happy that our knowledge helps to create new medicinal and alimentary formulas, but we have to get some credit and economic access to the results," Terena said.
"As indigenous representatives, we affirm our opposition to any forms of patents related to the usage of traditional knowledge and we request the creation of punitive mechanisms to block the pillaging of our biodiversity," the letter says.
GUARDING THE GUARANA
The organizers of last week's event hope that the U.N. body, which groups representatives of 160 countries, would hammer out a treaty regulating the usage of traditional knowledge in such fields as herbal medicine and foods.
They also want to put their representatives on the United Nation's intellectual property committee, on the World Trade Organization and other international bodies. The letter asks for the swiftest approval of a five-year-old U.N. declaration of Indian rights.
Indians stress that the nature of relationships between them is based on collective principles.
"Unlike the way the white man acts, proceeds from any rights would benefit not just the guardian of traditions, but all the people," Terena said, adding that Indian lawyers would be monitoring the implementation of any future regulations.
What's your opinion? Can the useful properties of plants be assigned as property rights in some just way? What system would you propose? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
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