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

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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.

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Humanity's heritage?

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."