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Amazon Indians Ask 'Biopirates' to Pay for Rain-Forest Riches

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1997


The dozen tropical plants growing in dappled sunlight under the thick Amazon canopy hardly look like the focus of a controversy with global impact.

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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."