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April 23 , 2004-College Street Journal, Mt. Holyoke College

Activist Debra Harry Speaks on Indigenous Peoples' Movement to Challenge Biocolonialism

By Aileen Suzara '06

Debra Harry, Northern Paiute activist from Pyramid Lake, Nevada, and executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, addressed the impact of new genetic technologies on indigenous peoples in her lecture "Indigenous Peoples and Biocolonialism: Genetics and Justice in the Twenty-first Century," presented in Gamble Auditorium April 14. This was the second presentation in the lecture series, "New Perspectives in Environmental Justice," organized by visiting assistant professor of geography and women's studies Giovanna Di Chiro.

Harry defined "biocolonialism" as the new frontier of colonialism. She argued that the indigenous peoples' struggle for self-determination has shifted from the battlefield and into the laboratory, as they assert the right to protect their own resources and lives against corporate commodification, in which genetic materials from their lands and bodies are subjected to "the process of appropriation and extraction." Globally, indigenous communities and territories are recognized as havens for biodiversity--often referred to as "mega-diversity zones"--making them targets of biotechnology industry and genetics research. Corporations have engaged in what Harry calls "genetic theft," claiming research and patent rights over medicinal and agricultural knowledge, genetic material of plants, animals, and even the DNA of indigenous people without their knowledge or consent. The problem stems from international policies, such as that espoused at the UN conference on biological diversity, which refer only to recognized states, ignoring the contributions and validity of indigenous worldviews and rights. Biocolonialism, said Harry, is more than science's misplaced interest in corporate profits rather than lives--it is a political issue, a cultural issue, a potential threat to the world's biodiversity and sustainability. Harry asserts that "society has the right to set limits."

Harry screened her new film The Leech and the Earthworm, which traces the global impacts of biocolonialism on indigenous peoples. Described as "experimental," and screened at film festivals from Zanzibar to British Columbia, the documentary showcases the voices of indigenous leaders from Vanuatu, Aotearoa, the Philippines, and North America, and outlines indigenous perspectives on issues including intellectual property rights and the Human Genome Project. One story told of how the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island donated blood samples for arthritis research several years ago, only to discover years later that their samples were distributed to other research institutions for experiments having nothing to do with arthritis. Through the medium of film, Harry hopes to open the channels of communication among indigenous peoples, and spread awareness to the broader public. "It's a unique opportunity to hear indigenous perspectives on genetic technology," Harry said.

From a young age Harry has devoted her life's work to issues threatening indigenous communities. In the 1970s she joined a coalition to stop the proposed siting of the MX land-based missile system, which would have brought 200 nuclear missiles to Nevada and Utah, devastating the Great Basin and Western Shoshone treaty lands. Harry has allied with indigenous peoples' movements across the globe. She cofounded the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, an organization supporting indigenous peoples in protection of their genetic resources, cultural preservation, and human rights, and whose members range from university-based geneticists to native attorneys. Harry's goals are not to prescribe a single answer but "to provide food for thought," enabling communities to make informed decisions.

Through the window of the indigenous perspective, Harry enunciated the interconnectedness among all people. Genetic technology is a shared issue that impacts our global environment and humanity's collective right to self-determination. Harry advised that the first step in becoming involved is "feeling powerful enough to take action," such as making conscious consumer choices towards GMO foods. She stresses, "People have to be active in setting the policy agenda, but based on their own terms." Harry stated that her motivation is for "the generations I don't know yet . . . I would hope that other people have the same sense of concern and compassion for the children yet unborn."