RIO BRANCO, BRAZIL — The dozen tropical plants growing in dappled sunlight under the thick Amazon canopy hardly look like the focus of a controversy with global impact.
But the plants, part of a modest nursery on a Kaxinawa Indian reserve in southwestern Brazil, stand center stage in a brewing battle over what Brazilians call "biopiracy."
Indians and state officials accuse an Austrian-born Brazilian of using a nonprofit charity, Living Jungle, to trick the Indians of Acre State into sharing their knowledge of plants and their traditional uses. The Indians helped catalog more than 300 species and searched for new ones. With the Kaxinawas' help, Living Jungle began developing a nursery of potentially exportable plants for development by international pharmaceutical companies. Officials further claim that while the potential profits from development of newly discovered plants are huge, the Indians received only a few baseball caps and an occasional box of aspirin as compensation.
In growing numbers, pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies are turning to the Amazon to find the plants, barks, and seeds that might provide tomorrow's medical and beauty products. And officials are responding with measures designed to protect Brazil from the kind of biological theft it has experienced in the past.
Brazilians still have bad memories of perhaps one of the first biopiracy cases. Last century, British interests smuggled rubber tree seeds to Malaysia, ending the Amazon's lucrative monopoly on the rubber trade. Not surprisingly, the Kaxinawa case has sparked substantial interest.
"Our gold, our oil, is our biodiversity," says Edvaldo Magalhes, a state legislator who sponsored Acre's recently approved biopiracy legislation. "But while ... big companies are already heavily involved in developing uses for jungle plants, we are only starting to demand a share of the benefit," he says. "We have to protect our wealth."
Brazil has a congressional investigative commission looking into the issue, and a federal biopiracy law is in the works. Brazil passed a biodiversity law in 1993, but the existing law is very general and lacks regulations.
Acre's new law makes plant researchers sign a contract detailing what they are looking for and whom they are working with. The law also requires them to work with a national research institute and to pay royalties to the state for the information they use.
The legislation is being criticized by some as a xenophobic reaction that showers cold water on the open research environment that promotes progress, and by others as simply ineffectual.
Pharmaceutical companies say they test about 10,000 plant species for every one that is used and marketed. So laws requiring contracts and compensation would put new financial restraints on an already slow and costly process, they say.
"I don't see this as a nationalist impulse, I see it in terms of establishing an equilibrium," says Patricia Rgo, a public prosecutor in the Acre attorney general's environmental protection office.
"What we learned from our investigation is that many Indians ... and other forest dwellers are being used by all kinds of ... company representatives," Ms. Rgo says. "We discovered that plants and other materials ... were being carried away in suitcases, without any control. The point of the law is that there has to be interchange and mutual benefit as the riches of our forest are put to use."
Investigations have turned up dozens of cases where foreign companies have patented materials from the rain forest and gone on to develop products, sometimes even using the original Indian name. But the Indians whose knowledge led to the particular plant being used usually receive no compensation. In one case, a US company was even found to be selling Amazon Indians' blood for DNA research.
The criticism that the rain forest is a natural wealth that should be accessible to all mankind draws bitter smiles from Acre officials. "Isn't it ironic how ... the companies that want to benefit from the jungle and the Indians living there plead the case that the jungle's genetic riches are the 'heritage of all humanity,' " Mr. Magalhes says. "But then when they turn a plant into a product, they want all the ... profits for themselves."
But other officials say that, while the issue of biopiracy is serious, legislation alone cannot regulate the problem. Too-rigid laws could hurt Brazil by discouraging the technology transfers it needs to participate more fully in product development.
"A plant's genetic properties can be carried out of the jungle with one leaf in a pocket, so simple interdiction will never be enough," says Eduardo Martins, president of Brazil's environmental protection agency. He also notes that the Amazon's vastness makes attempts to geographically limit researchers almost meaningless. "You approve their work in one place, then you find they've ended up someplace else," he says. The growth of ecotourism also complicates attempts to regulate access to the rain forest.
But a clampdown can drive research, once relatively open, underground. Officials say they are now encountering clandestine research sites operating much like illegal drug laboratories.
Cooperation only solution
Given these factors, Mr. Martins says the only long-term solution is cooperation: "Cooperation on genetic transfers and access to the rain forest is part of a two-way street that also includes compensation ... and technology transfer, so that newly discovered materials will increasingly be used here in Brazil."
But the Braslia official acknowledges that such cooperation won't come easy. He says Brazil will pursue the "cooperation path" with the European Union first, because the US has so far resisted attempts to address the issue. The US Congress has failed to ratify the biodiversity convention of the 1992 United Nations summit in Rio, which calls for compensation of Indians' knowledge, Martins notes. But at the same time, "if you look at US patents," he adds, "they include a lot of Amazon materials. We can only assume that in many cases they were attained through illegal access and appropriation."
That's where private cooperation comes in. Martins notes that many companies are already working under mutually beneficial arrangements with various Indian tribes to develop the rain forest's riches. (See story, left.)
Some Indians say past experiences will make them wary about cooperating with outsiders. "If they come again with the idea of getting something for nothing in return, then we'll say 'No, we've already learned that lesson,' " says Valdir Ferreira, a Kaxinawa leader. Meanwhile, he says the nursery on the Muru River "will be used for our own research."