Return to Homepage

Search IPCB:            

ULTRA Search™
for more
specific results

IPCB Action Alert to Oppose the Genographic Project

April 13, 2005

Dear Friends,

By now you may have heard that the National Geographic Society and the IBM Corporation announced the launch of their five-year, $40 million “Genographic Project”. The project intends to collect 100,000 blood samples from Indigenous peoples around the world in order to “chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species and answer age-old questions surrounding the genetic diversity of humanity.” The Genographic Project is essentially a renewed attempt to further the goals of the much protested Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) which many of us worked hard to stop throughout much of the 1990’s. Similarly, we must oppose the Genographic Project for the same reasons. Below is a brief highlight of some of these concerns.

1. Speculation about Human Migration and Histories

We know, in fact, that this kind of genetic analysis can only lead to new speculative theories about human history, or advance old theories. There’s nothing wrong with a study of human history per se, but this project is being undertaken at our expense. However, it is quite likely this project will advance new theories of our origins that may contradict our own knowledge of ourselves. There can be no claim as to which understanding is correct, and will result in a clash of knowledge systems. Moreover, there could be serious political implications that result from a so-called “scientific” assertion that Indigenous peoples are not “Indigenous” to their territories, but instead are recent migrants from some other place. This cuts at the heart of the rights of Indigenous peoples which are based upon our collective, inherent right of self-determination as peoples, under International human rights law.

2. Bioethical Issues

All of the standard issues come to bear here, such as guarantees that insure strict adherence to free and prior informed consent, not only of the individuals involved but also of the Indigenous nations impacted or potentially impacted by this project. A standard ethical requirement in human research is that the benefits must equal the risk. In this type of research there will be no benefit to Indigenous peoples, yet the research creates substantial risk to the individuals and peoples affected. We’ve seen widespread secondary uses of genetic materials taken from Indigenous peoples without consent in well-known cases such as the Nuu-cha-nulth of British Columbia and the Havasupai Tribe of Arizona. The Genographic Project proposes to offer money to tribal groups in exchange for their participation. This could be considered a coercive act and constitute yet another ethical violation.

3. Commercialization of Human Genes

Human genes, cell lines, data, and products derived from human genes are considered patentable subject matter in US patent law and further promoted in international trade agreements. As we’ve seen in the past, there have been attempts and even patents granted on the genetic material of Indigenous peoples. For instance, in 1994 a patent for a cell line derived from the Hagahai people of Papua New Guinea was granted to the US Department of Commerce. The US also sought patents over Solomon Islanders and the Guaymi of Panama around the same time. Most Indigenous peoples do not consider biological material extracted from their bodies to be commodities. On the contrary, many Indigenous peoples consider their biological materials sacred and imbued with a life force of it’s own. Even if the Genographic Project does not pursue commercial development of the genetic material, others with access to the materials may do so in the future.
Even if no commercial products are developed, the basic premise that our human DNA is available for exchange for some benefit offered in exchange, typically called a “benefit sharing agreement,” results in the transformation of our genetic material into something marketable and alienable. The Genographic Project says they will benefit Indigenous peoples by offering money for education and cultural preservation. Education, health care, cultural preservation etc, are human rights and should not be tied to a requirement to have to give up your DNA in order to receive these basic human needs. The fact that the IBM Corporation is a key partner in the Genographic Project raises further concern. We all know that businesses are in the business of making a profit for their shareholders.

4. Promotes Genetic Research on Our Ancestors

A serious concern is this type of research necessitates, promotes, and encourages genetic research on DNA extracted from the remains of our ancestors, referred to as “ancient DNA.” Any genetic analysis of human remains requires some destructive analysis, ie, the crushing of bones, extraction of tissue, hair, or bone marrow, etc. Needless to say, this is a horrific affront to the sanctity of our ancestors.

5. Racist Science

This project intends to make us the subjects for scientific curiosity. The research is designed around a racial research agenda, when we know there is no biological basis for race. Race-based science is bad science, and results in racially interpreted outcomes. All of this occurs in a field in which there is no accountability, no legal framework to hold violators accountable for misuse of genetic material, and the risks for Indigenous peoples are many.

Take Action

It’s unfortunate that this type of exploitive project demands so much of our attention and energy, but as we know, many of our communities are vulnerable for exploitation. We must continue our efforts to inform our communities about the many risks that genetic research raises for our peoples and our future generations. We ask you to send letters of protest to the following contacts at National Geographic, IBM, and the Waitt Family Foundation. And, you can sign on to our petition that will be delivered to the collaborators of the Genographic Project at the end of May 2005. Visit our website for additional information:

National Geographic Society
Lucie McNeil Phone: (202) 857-5841 Email:
National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036-4688

IBM Corporation
Nick Donofrio
Senior Vice President
IBM Corporation
One New Orchard Road,
Armonk, NY 10504
Phone: (914) 499-1900
Fax: (914) 765-6021

Michael Loughran -

Phone: (914) 499-6446

Waitt Family Foundation
John Heubusch, President Phone: 1 858-551-4839
The Waitt Family Foundation Fax: 1 858-551-6871
P.O. Box 1948
La Jolla, CA 92038-1948

Thank you for joining our efforts to protect the human rights of Indigenous peoples from exploitive genetic research.


Debra Harry,
Executive Director