In November last year Abbott Laboratories, a US-based pharmaceutical company, announced the development of a new pain-killer that may be up to 200 times as strong as morphine. It produces no side effects and could replace analgesics currently used for surgery and treatment of severe pain – giving it the top position they occupy in a prescription-drug market currently worth $40 billion annually.
But in Ecuador there was an outcry at this news, because the active ingredient of the new analgesic (known as ABT-594) is found in a poison secreted by a frog. The ‘poison-dart frog’ is found only in the foothills of the central Ecuadoran Andes and its poison is used by indigenous people for hunting.
Two Ecuadoran environmental organizations, Ecological Action and the Environmental Law Center, say that 750 poison-dart frogs were taken to the US without permission in 1976. Now the earnings projected for ABT-594 have led Ecuador to seek to benefit from Abbott’s discovery. But Ecuador has not found legal grounds for suing because the US has not ratified international conventions dealing with biological resources and does not require its companies to abide by them. Ecuador has sent an official request to Abbott that the company ‘recognize and share, in a fair and equitable manner, the benefits derived from the knowledge of indigenous communities,’ but so far it has received no reply.
Meanwhile, researchers from New York Botanical Garden took insects back to the US last year, despite an agreement with Ecuador’s National Herbarium and the Technical Unit of Plan Awa which authorized plant samples but not insects. They also took two shamans to help classify the samples, says Fernando Moreno, an anthropologist working with the World Wide Fund for Nature. ‘By taking the shamans, they left the community unprotected, because the shaman is the symbol of security in indigenous peoples’ world view,’ he says. Gina Chávez, Vice President of Ecological Action, said that while biological prospecting may benefit indigenous groups if their right to their ancestral knowledge is respected, she remains sceptical. ‘The effects will most likely be negative,’ she says, ‘because as the environment deteriorates, their survival will be threatened and they will slowly be incorporated into the mestizo (mixed-race) world.’
Luis Angel Saavedra/Latin America Press Vol 31 No 2