Biopiracy on the Big C

April 26, 1996

Tim Cornwell reports on the exploitation of the biological resources of indigenous peoples. Did the 260 Hagahai people of Papua New Guinea know that their genes might offer a cure for cancer? Unlikely, for the tiny highlands tribe came into sustained contact with the outside world only in 1984.

And if they had, would they have been able to do anything about it? Not the point, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a small but devoted group of activists working out of Ottawa, Canada. The Hagahai, RAFI says, were yet another victim of the "bioprospectors", their genes carried off and patented like so many Sabine women.

Anthropologist Carol Jenkins says she worked with the Hagahai for more than a decade before 1995, when she and co-researchers at the National Institutes of Health filed a patent on behalf of the United States government on their genetic material. Jenkins had discovered a unique strain of leukaemia virus that the Hagahai carry in their blood; usually, it causes cancer, but for them it did not.

It promised the possibility of a treatment for leukaemia. But, according to Jenkins, her research is now almost useless; RAFI has made it too hot for any commercial company to handle.

In 1995 RAFI dubbed Jenkins's work a bad case of biopiracy on the high seas of genetics. "In an unprecedented move, the United States government has issued itself a patent on a foreign citizen," it announced in a press release. "This patent is another major step down the road to the commodification of life," said Pat Mooney, RAFI's executive director. "In the days of colonialism, researchers went after indigenous people's resources and studied their social organisations and customs. But now, in biocolonial times, they are going after the people themselves."

That press release scored headlines worldwide, but it was not the first. RAFI's list of bioprospectors runs from Johnson and Johnson to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. In 1993, the US government issued and then dropped a patent on the "cell line" from the blood of a woman of the Panamanian Guaymi Indian tribe after RAFI intervened.

RAFI is an international group that gets funding from government agencies and foundations in America and Europe. A visit to its home page on the World Wide Web is a trip to an ideological home front in the North-South conflict. The US government's much-touted Human Genome Diversity Project, aiming to draw blood samples from over 700 indigenous peoples, is dubbed the "Vampire Project".

Forget researchers pushing the frontiers; it is biocapitalists who are the enemy here, exploiting the biological resources of indigenous people, and particularly of American biocapitalists. RAFI's "biopiracy update", for example, pours scorn on the claim by researchers at the University of Wisconsin to have found and patented a protein called brazzein from the berry of Pentadiplandra brazzeana, which they report to be 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. Local people and animals in Gabon have long enjoyed brazzeana, RAFI says. The plant is known locally as "J'oublie", I forget, which is what children say to their parents when they become absorbed eating it. But Gabon has apparently lost all rights to brazzein DNA, RAFI claims, because it is allegedly the "invention" of the Wisconsin researchers.

Jenkins says she gained the Hagahai's trust in years of working with them; she claims to have guaranteed their rights through a deal with the government of Papua New Guinea to give the tribe 50 per cent of royalties. "For a start whose royalties?" asks Jean Christie, the sceptical international liaison officer at RAFI who visited the Hagahai tribe.

"She is one of five names on the patent and its holder is the US government. Has she offered them 50 per cent of her royalties, all of the inventors' royalties, after costs, before costs, whose costs, what costs? I gather it's a verbal agreement and I would guess with all respect you could drive a truck through it."

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