Mayans guard medicines

Drug companies want to patent ancient cures


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san cristobal de las casas — aPukuj (“devil”) is haunting the Tzotzil Indian highlands of Chiapas. He is, however, a very unlikely devil — sans horns, albeit with a vaguely Mephisto-like goatee and a set of liberal credentials a mile long.Brent Berlin, a distinguished ethnobiologist who heads up the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia, terms himself “a Zapatista in spirit,” referring to the largely Mayan Indian rebels in whose zone of influence he has worked for 40 years.

Now, Dr. Devil, as some pro-Zapatista Indians call him, stands accused by a prestigious grouping of Mayan healers and herbalists of stealing medicinal plants from Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan communities and offering them for sale to the transnational pharmaceutical industry.

A recent biodiversity conference sponsored by influential Mexican, U.S. and Canadian non-governmental organizations in this old colonial city was attended by 700 representatives of 190 distinct social groups and church parishes. They were greeted at the portals of the convent where the meetings were held by a large portrait of Berlin and his wife framed under a skull-and-crossbones logo. The doctor’s accusers — the Council of Organizations of Traditional Indian Doctors and Midwives of Chiapas (COMPITCH) — demonized the Berlins in workshops and plenary sessions as bio-pirates.

Fearful of attending in person, Berlin sent a colleague as proxy, but Paul Duncan (his name tag read “Pablo”) was denied an opportunity to rebut COMPITCH’s allegations.

The bone of contention is a Berlin-directed project operating as the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, a formation that grew out of the 1992 UN-sponsored Rio Earth Summit. The Indians charge that the ICBG-Maya project, modestly funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health with $2.5 million for five years, is a for-profit scheme to put the Mayan herbalarium on the global market. Duncan and Berlin describe their project as being both “humanitarian” and “commercial.”

Partners in ICBG-Maya include the EcoSur Institute, which contracts the actual collection of plant materials (collectors’ wages are deducted from any royalties they might eventually accrue) the University of Georgia, where the Berlins earn a comfortable six figures in salaries and grants and a mysterious Wales-based laboratory, Nature Molecular Limited, a tiny (14 employees) enterprise specially constituted for ICBG-Maya.

For bio-prospectors like Berlin and Nature Molecular, the chances of striking a green gusher are slim. “The likelihood of our making a discovery that could ultimately be developed as a pharmaceutical are as low as my chances of winning the Mexican lottery,” Berlin writes.

But striking it rich is not unknown in the bio-prospecting game. For example, Decode Genetics, a tiny Icelandic laboratory, recently leased its genetic profiles of that island’s biotica to Hoffman-Roche in a five-year, $200- million (U.S.) windfall.

Nature Molecular, described by Berlin as “our corporate partner,” will split royalties from any sales to the pharmaceutical giants four ways, with the University of Georgia, EcoSur and ProMaya, a phantom foundation (Chiapas bishop emeritus Samuel Ruiz is on the board) that is supposed to distribute the Indians’ share of the revenues for sustainable development projects.

But the Indians’ royalties are apt to be a very long time coming. Nature Molecular gets to deduct the cost of its investigations before any monies are paid out.

The “corporate partner” will also keep the sales price of any active materials to the pharmaceutical industry, and will split only the royalties from manufactured products. The pharmaceutical industry generally pays bio-prospectors 1 per cent of net sales of the commercial product, points out Rafael Alarcon, a mestizo physician working with COMPITCH. “We’re really talking about 25 per cent of 1 per cent for the Indians.”

COMPITCH demands that the ICBG-Maya project be cancelled and Berlin thrown out of the country.

“We’re being bashed unfairly,” Berlin complains in an e-mail message to me. “This is not about international giants and poor Indians,” he writes.

For Berlin, ICBG-Maya, rather than selling off the Indians’ healing secrets to the transnationals, preserves an herbalarium that is fast disappearing. He dreams of building gardens of native medicinal plants in Chiapas and training new Indian doctors. “This is not against the Indian doctors who cure by prayer,” he adds mysteriously.

But COMPITCH is vexed by the terms of the interchange between corporations and Mayans, which it labels racist. “They just want our plants,” argues Antonio Perez, a local healer who recently toured the U.S. under the sponsorship of the NGO Global Exchange to denounce ICBG bio-piracy. Perez points out that 74 per cent of all pharmaceutical discoveries are made, not in the laboratory, but rather through identification by Indian doctors and healers.

Although he dodges a question about how the 1994 rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation has changed his work in the highlands of Chiapas, Berlin has apparently run head-on into the new political realities in the region that, at bottom line, make it politically hazardous for white anthropologists to be seen to be plundering native resources.

One key gaffe: Berlin worked with municipal presidents in such flashpoint counties as Chenalho, Tenejapa, Chamula and Chanal, where the then-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), mortal enemies of the Zapatista rebels, long held power through fraud and coercion.

It’s no secret that many of the NGOs and Indian organizations that oppose the Berlins’ venture support the rebels. COMPITCH itself was chartered in 94, the first year of the uprising.

Although the battle between Brent Berlin and the Indian doctors may seem a minor scrap, the stakes are huge. Chiapas forms one corner of the new eight-nation, 766,000-square-kilometre “Meso-American Biological Corridor,” a World Bank-funded project that has bio-prospectors drooling.

“We are not against Dr. Berlin,” Indian doctor Sebastian Luna observed. “We are against making a profit on the use of the medicines nuestra madre tierra (our mother, the earth) has given us.”

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