New Internationalist

Resisting The Gene Raiders

Issue 293

Resisting the gene raiders
Aroha Te Pareake Mead on the genetic exploitation of indigenous peoples –
and how they are fighting back.

When news of Dolly the cloned sheep made the world headlines, few realized that the company who claimed it created Dolly was also engaged in field trials in Tauranga, Aotearoa /New Zealand.

The Scottish-based PPL Therapeutics is conducting research into Maori and Aboriginal peoples, in some cases to ascertain genetic pre-dispositions to what are essentially socio-economic conditions – alcoholism, lung cancer and domestic violence.

Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea, researchers have been busy trying to patent the genes of the Hagahai people, hoping to find a cure for leukaemia.

Bioprospecting, as it is called, is rife in this part of the world; not only in Aotearoa/New Zealand but in Western Samoa, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji. As the 1994 Pacific Treaty puts it: ‘In the continuing quest to locate new resources as well as new sources of knowledge for commercial exploitation, companies (and some governments) have established footholds in the sparsely populated, isolated and vulnerable communities of the Pacific.’

These ‘footholds’ have sometimes been at the expense of the local population – and have rarely benefited local communities.

PPL and their New Zealand partner, Selbourne Biological Services, applied to the New Zealand Government to field-trial transgenic rams, inserted with human DNA. PPL claimed that they had discovered a human virus capable of treating leukaemia, but that the virus could not be reproduced synthetically. PPL therefore developed a complex system by which rams inserted with human DNA could be ‘pharmed’. In practical terms, this meant transgenic rams shipped from Scotland to New Zealand to impregnate New Zealand ewes – male offspring to be destroyed, female offspring to be shipped back to Scotland for milking and the human virus to be extracted from the milk. The technology was to remain in Scotland, but the environmental risks were to be undertaken in clean green Aotearoa/ New Zealand.

After numerous public submissions, PPL/Selbourne’s application was denied. But they re-applied at a time when there was no public attention and were subsequently approved. They have now submitted a progress report and application to continue the field-trial. In the meantime, the project has caused division, dissent and rejection within a small Maori community. Under New Zealand law Selbourne was required to consult with neighbouring Maori land-owners. Selbourne made contact with a small group (of five people), gave an oral presentation and asked the participants to give their consent. They gave a conditional consent, which was misrepresented by other Maori as being a binding consent. As a result, a Maori woman who had signed the conditional consent was forced to resign from her tribal position because the tribe perceived her action as being one of giving consent without mandate.

The Hagahai people’s story is equally complex. Their first contact with the ‘outside’ world was as recent as 1984. For the first time in their history they were exposed to external viruses and diseases which left many of them dead. At risk of extinction, they made contact with a foreign researcher who brought them vital inoculations which saved their lives. But at the same time he took samples of their DNA and shipped them to the US for further research. On establishing that the Hagahai seemed to be immune to leukaemia and degenerative neurological diseases, the US researchers took out a US patent on the genetic qualities of a Hagahai individual.

There was a massive global outcry at the US patent, led by the Canadian-based Rural Advancement International Foundation (RAFI) but also advanced at a Pacific regional level, which ultimately resulted in a US decision to abandon the patent.

The actual DNA samples have yet to be repatriated and a similar claim on DNA properties of Solomon Island peoples has yet to be considered. Far from being resolved, there is a feeling that in the future researchers will continue to act in this manner, but will refrain from applying a patent until the last stages of research. The Hagahai patent was taken out in the early stages.

Patents have been taken out on animals, people and, of course, plants. Take Kava. Kava is a plant which has become a fundamental aspect of Melanesian and Polynesian cultures in terms of hospitality, mana (esteem) and, in some cases, social inter-action. Kava is integral to the identity of the Pacific. It is a tradition we all know and respect, one which we have assumed will always be with us. Recently, US and German companies have attempted to assert property rights over species of the Kava. Their research has identified useful pharmaceutical products over which they wish to assert exclusive ownership.

Indigenous people in the region reject the idea that such things can be ‘owned’ by a person or by a company. The whole idea of intellectual property rights (commonly known as IPR) is fundamentally flawed. It awards ownership over resources and knowledge which were not developed and therefore cannot be owned by any single entity. In awarding ownership property rights the IPR regime rejects concepts of collective rights, communal heritage and common property.

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific are in a unique situation in that they live in both developing and developed countries, but what they all share in common is that they are peoples under invasion. And as such they have been using all means at their disposal to prevent themselves being bought up and appropriated by those companies and governments looking to make a fast buck out of their uniqueness.

There are two legal instruments which have been developed in the Pacific region over the past five years which ‘express the dismay and anger (of indigenous peoples) regarding biological prospecting and human genetic research’ [Pacific Treaty]: The 1993 Mataatua Declaration on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the 1995 Treaty for a Lifeforms Patent-Free Pacific and Related Protocols.

The Mataatua Declaration represents the first international agreement formulated by indigenous peoples after in-depth consideration of cultural and intellectual property rights issues. Named after the nine Maori tribes of the Mataatua region who hosted the meeting, the Declaration calls for a global moratorium on any further commercialization of traditional plants, medicines and human genetic materials until indigenous peoples and the international community have developed appropriate protection mechanisms. It also asserts that existing Western intellectual property rights mechanisms are not capable of providing adequate or appropriate protection of indigenous knowledge and resources. Far from being anti-science, it calls for more co-operative arrangements between indigenous communities and researchers, such as Codes of Ethics and Research Agreements.

The Declaration was presented to the 1993 UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva and has since been signed by over 800 indigenous nations and organizations as well as non-indigenous organizations.

That the South Pacific would also develop a Life Forms Patent-Free Treaty is not surprising given the economic realities of Pacific islands. The Asia Development Bank predicts that only two South Pacific developing countries will be financially viable by the end of the next decade. A rather harsh prediction, and one which places economic profit as the pinnacle of human and national endeavour.

The Treaty reaffirms a belief in the sanctity of all life and states that it is affronted by the use of intellectual property rights systems and Western science and technology to control and exploit the lands, territories, resources and integrity of indigenous peoples. It expresses concern that the heritage of future descendants will be diminished through the commercialization of the biological resources of the Pacific and presses for ‘immediate and united action’.

The declaration of a Life Forms Patent-Free Pacific is a bold and courageous action. It is a strong message to researchers, bioprospectors, foreign governments and transnational companies that they are only welcome in the region if their work will contribute in a substantial manner to the long-term cultural and economic well-being of Pacific peoples. Many Pacific indigenous peoples have signed the Treaty, as well as sympathetic international non-governmental organizations, such as Greenpeace International and the European Co-ordination ‘No Patents on Life’.

And finally, Maori have lodged a claim against the New Zealand Government in which the claimants assert that the indigenous flora and fauna of Aotearoa/New Zealand (and any resultant cultural and intellectual property rights) remain vested with Maori tribes, rather than with the Government. The claim (known as WAI262) takes the view that the New Zealand Government had no legal right to sign the GATT Uruguay Round Agreement or the Convention on Biological Resources because it had yet to receive definitive national legal advice on the ownership of the nation’s natural resources. The claim has yet to be heard – the claimants are struggling to finance the necessary customary and legal research.

But they believe that such resistance is the only way to challenge this new threat to our livelihoods. In doing so, indigenous peoples remember that slavery wasn’t considered a human-rights issue at first; it was seen as a commercial transaction. It took generations of protest and resistance, and the sacrifice of thousands of lives, to overturn and criminalize property rights over humans. Now property rights over human genes are being legalized... And a new struggle has begun.

Aroha Te Pareake Mead is of the Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou tribes of Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is Director of the Mataatua Declaration Association, and Foreign Policy and Deputy-Convenor of the Maori Congress. She is also a Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Maori Development and the Pacific Regional co-ordinator for the Indigenous Knowledge Programme. Aroha’s main area of work is local community development of indigenous knowledge systems.

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