IPCB Action Alert to Oppose the Genographic Project
April 13, 2005
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.
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: http://www.ipcb.org
National Geographic Society
Lucie McNeil Phone: (202) 857-5841 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036-4688
Senior Vice President
One New Orchard Road,
Armonk, NY 10504
Phone: (914) 499-1900
Fax: (914) 765-6021
Michael Loughran - email@example.com
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.