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News Release -1 December 1999

Biopiracy Project in Chiapas, Mexico
Denounced by Mayan Indigenous Groups

University of Georgia Refuses to Halt Project

Eleven indigenous peoples' organizations are demanding that a US$2.5
million, US-government funded bioprospecting program suspend its activities
in Chiapas, Mexico. Despite the protest by local Mayan organizations, the
University of Georgia (US) says it will not halt the five-year project,
which aims to collect and evaluate thousands of plants and microorganisms
used in traditional medicine by Mayan communities.

Collectively known as the Council of Indigenous Traditional Midwives and
Healers of Chiapas (Consejo Estatal de Parteras y Médicos Indígenas
Tradicionales de Chiapas), the eleven Mayan organizations are denouncing
the bioprospecting project, and they are asking other indigenous people in
Chiapas to refuse to cooperate with the researchers. The project is led by
the University of Georgia, in cooperation with a Mexican university
research center, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), and Molecular
Nature Ltd., a biotechnology company based in Wales, U.K.

What is the Chiapas ICBG Project?
The five-year project "Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of
Mexico," now in its second year of operation, will receive a total grant of
US$2.5 millions dollars from the US government's International Cooperative
Biodiversity Groups (ICBG). The ICBG is a consortium of US federal
agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National
Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that
awards grants to public and commercial research institutions that conduct
bioprospecting/biopiracy programs in the South. The ICBG's self-stated goal
is to promote drug discovery from natural sources, biodiversity
conservation and sustainable economic growth in developing countries. For
additional information, go to:

Using indigenous knowledge to guide its research, the Chiapas ICBG project
aims to discover, isolate and evaluate pharmacologically important
compounds from the plant species and microorganisms employed in traditional
Mayan medicine. The tropical mountains of Chiapas contain one of the
richest repositories of plant and animal biodiversity in the world. Over
the centuries, the Maya have developed a rich medical knowledge. An
estimated 6000 plant species thrive in the area, thousands of them used by
the Maya to treat illness. All promising biological samples will be
screened for their activity against cancer, diseases associated with
HIV-AIDS, central nervous system disorders, cardiovascular disease, and
gastrointestinal, respiratory/pulmonary, skin disorders and for
contraception. The Project will also conduct a comprehensive botanical
survey of the Central Chiapas Highlands, and it will promote sustainable
harvest and production of selected species that show high potential for
economic development. The project estimates that it will ultimately
identify approximately 2000 unique compounds that will be chemically
profiled by Molecular Nature, Ltd. the project's commercial partner based
in the UK. A duplicate set of plants collected by the ICBG program in
Chiapas will be deposited at the University of Georgia's Herbarium in
Athens, Georgia.

Local Opposition
The bioprospecting program has outraged some indigenous peoples'
organizations in Chiapas who claim that their indigenous knowledge and
resources are being stolen.  In a written declaration distributed in
Chiapas, the Council stated: "We, as traditional indigenous healers have
organized for the past 15 years to assert and improve our customary medical
practices... We have appealed to national and state authorities to suspend
this project. Now we are appealing to all indigenous peoples to refuse to
allow the researchers of ECOSUR to remove plants and information from our

According to Sebastian Luna, an indigenous Tzeltal spokesperson from the
Council, "the project is a robbery of traditional indigenous knowledge and
resources, with the sole purpose of producing pharmaceuticals that will not
benefit the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for
thousands of years."

"Furthermore," continues Luna, "the project explicitly proposes to patent
and privatize resources and knowledge that have always been collectively
owned... Besides being totally contradictory to our culture and traditions,
the project creates conflict within our communities as some individuals,
pressured by the grave economic situation, collaborate with the researchers
for a few pesos or tools."

"The project, led by anthropologist Brent Berlin of the University of
Georgia, is plundering our knowledge and taking plant samples from the
communities in Chiapas, returning almost nothing in exchange," adds Luna.
Professor Berlin, who is a past president and member of the International
Society of Ethnobiology (ISE), will host the ISE's Congress in October,
2000 in Georgia on the topic of benefit sharing with indigenous
communities. "We believe he is openly violating the Society's Code of
Ethics," concludes Luna.  That Code, in its "Principle of Prior Informed
Consent and Veto" states:

 "the prior informed consent of all peoples and their communities must be
obtained before any research is undertaken. Indigenous peoples, traditional
societies and local communities have the right to veto any programme,
project, or study that affects them. Providing prior informed consent
presumes that all potentially affected communities will be provided
complete information regarding the purpose and nature of the research
activities and the probable results, including all reasonably foreseeable
benefits and risks of harm (be they tangible or intangible) to the affected
communities." (emphasis added) The full text is available at:

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