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Biopiracy and Globalization: Indigenous Peoples Face a New Wave of Colonialism

By Debra Harry, Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism

Ms. Harry's comments for the International Forum on Globalization Teach-in held in New York City in February 2001 were based on her recent article published in the magazine Splice, January / April 2001 Volume 7 Issues 2 & 3 (

Historically there has been prolific scientific interest in the lifestyles, knowledge, cultures, histories, and worldviews of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are probably the most studied people in the world. Today, the genomics revolution is fueling a new wave of scientific research in the form of bioprospecting, and it is impacting the lives of indigenous peoples around the world. Like all other unwanted advances of colonization, the biotech industry has come knocking at our door.

Indigenous peoples worldwide are now at the forefront of a new wave of scientific investigation: the quest for monopoly control of genetic resources that will be useful in new pharmaceuticals, nutriceuticals, and other bio-engineered products. The genetic diversity that exists within the veins and territories of indigenous peoples is threatened by expropriation. These unique genetic resources, which have nurtured the lives of indigenous peoples for centuries, are sought by the biotechnology industry (both public and private). The industry seeks to identify genes associated with diseases, and for the creation of new bio-engineered plants and animals, pharmaceutical products, nutriceutical products, and other processes and products useful in genetic research.

In the area of human genetic research, genetic diversity research seems to be a high priority of many research agendas. Indigenous peoples currently are the subjects of evolutionary genetic research, pharmaco-genetic research, and the search for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or disease genes, to name a few. This work has seen extensive violations of human rights by researchers who fail to get fully informed consent from their research subjects, and who allow widespread secondary use, and/or commercialization, of human genetic samples without the consent of the donor.

And the, through the application of intellectual property rights law, namely patents, corporations can claim ownership over genes, products, and data derived from genetic resources, thereby enclosing genetic resources which were developed by nature or are the result of centuries of cultivation by indigenous farmers.

The current framework allows corporations to assert monopoly claims over life-forms they had no hand in ┴inventing". This results in benefits to their shareholders at the expense of the society, and the peoples, from whom the resources were stolen.


Colonization is an age old process of theft and control facilitated by doctrines of conquest such as the Manifest Destiny and Terra Nullius, that claim the land as empty (except for the millions of aboriginals living there), and non-productive (in its natural state). And as the self-proclaimed "discoverers" of crops, medicinal plants, genetic resources, and traditional knowledge, these bioprospectors become the new "owners". Intellectual property rights are being used to turn nature and life processes into ┴private property¬. As private property, it is alienable; that is, it can be owned, bought and sold as a commodity. The result is a legitimized process for thievery, which we call "biocolonialism".

The quest for this "genetic gold" seems to be a significant motivation of many research projects. Indigenous communities are disadvantaged in this paradigm by being dependent solely on the researcher for information explaining the benefits and risks of the research. Often they are not informed that their DNA can be commercialized through patents and used in the development of new products. The profit motive in genetic research makes indigenous peoples highly vulnerable to exploitation.

Racism and human rights violations, attitudes of racism, dehumanization, and oppression result in a research paradigm that objectifies the subjects, and negates their full humanness. Indigenous people are not seen to be fully equal participants and partners in research. These attitudes justify actions that contravene standard ethical practices.

Indigenous peoples are finding themselves treated as objects of scientific curiosity, with very little regard for their needs, or concern about how the research may negatively impact them. With their eye on the prize, which is to collect blood samples, researchers often fail to get true informed consent, claiming the subjects cannot understand genetics, or the researchers collect biological samples under false circumstances. In some instances, coercion may be the best means for finding cooperative research subjects by offering medical attention, cash, or other token benefits. While the specific research purpose itself may seem benign, population-based genetic research invariably will be applied to the whole group. And, once biological samples have been secured, there is often widespread interest in those samples by other researchers. Scientists often share their collections with their colleagues, as a matter of course, or for a price. There are virtually no legal protections to invoke when ethical violations occur.

The Failure of ELSI to Reach Impacted Groups

The US earmarked 5% of its annual Human Genome Project (HGP) funds to address associated ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of the work. ELSI programs have failed miserably to help indigenous peoples prepare to address the issues raised by genomic research. Indigenous peoples are largely unaware of the scale and potential impacts of genetic research to their communities. Despite a decade of ESLI funding, the burden has fallen upon the tribes themselves to get a basic genetics education, and understand its potential impacts on their lives. In the meantime, the government has busily funded projects studying indigenous groups, without any meaningful consultation with the group.

Current bioethical protocols fail to address the unique conditions raised by population-based research, in particular with respect to unique processes for group decision-making and cultural worldviews. Genetic variation research is group research, but most ethical guidelines are not equipped to address group rights. In this context, one of the challenges of ethical research is to include respect for collective review and decision making, while also upholding the traditional model of individual rights.

Genetic Research and Tribal Protection Strategies

It has become evident that this new era of science and technology poses new challenges to the collective protection and management of genetic resources of indigenous peoples. Western intellectual property rights bear little resemblance to indigenous systems that usually focus on the protection and management of resources for the benefit of the collective group. One author describes the conflict succinctly:

"In particular, there is a very serious question whether the category ┴property,¬ or the historically contingent and individualistic notion of ┴property¬ that has arisen in the West, is even appropriate when discussing things like agricultural practices, cell lines, seed plasm, and oral narratives that belong to communities rather than individuals. If we are not capable of acknowledging the existence of different life-worlds and ways of envisioning human beings; relationship to the natural world in our intellectual property laws, then unfortunately, it may be late in the day for biodiversity and hopes for a genuinely multicultural world."

Indigenous groups are asserting their own rights to take proactive measures to protect themselves and their territories by controlling research. The "Indigenous Research Protection Act" (IRPA), recently developed by the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB), helps tribal governments protect their people against unwanted research and when they believe the research may be beneficial the IRPA provides a framework to control the research agenda. This changes the paradigm from being treated as research subjects to being active partners with the power to make informed decisions and choices. It is believed that more tribal control of research is likely to result in more beneficial outcomes, and of the research actually meeting the needs of the people.

It is important to recognize that the majority of health problems are caused by economic, environmental, and social factors, not genetic. This means that public resources are being misdirected towards funding the biotech industry, and away from programs and services that would make a real difference in peoples health care. Tribal leaders are particularly concerned because public resources are diverted away from programs and services that would result in significant benefit to their communities.

The opposition by indigenous peoples to the wide range of genetic research activity, including the collection of their DNA, is founded on a critical analysis of the potentially negative impacts of the research. Given a historical experience of colonial oppression, indigenous peoples have little reason to trust either the biotechnology or the researchers that bring it forth. With amazing similarity, the voices of indigenous peoples worldwide have questioned the appropriateness of genetic engineering, denounced acts of biopiracy, and are asserting their rights to protect their communities and environments from the gene hunters. Their efforts, have in the past, and will in the future, demonstrate a living alternative to an era of globalization that seeks to monopolize and commodify all of life¬s resources.

Debra Harry
Executive Director
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism
PO Box 818
Wadsworth, NV 89424
Tel: (775) 835-6932 Fax: (775) 835-6934

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