The Plant Prospectors

Who wins, who loses, and who decides whether it?s biopiracy or bioprospecting? The battle over plants in the Highlands of Chiapas.


One night not long ago I wandered into the backroom at Las Manitas Café in downtown Austin, squeezed my way onto a crowded bench, and began to listen to Antonio Pérez Méndez of Maravilla Tenejapa, Chiapas talk about plants. This was his first trip to the United States and Don Antonio was covering a lot of ground in a short time: San Francisco, New Mexico and now Texas, all of which he described as muy bonito.

Don Antonio is a 56-year-old traditional Maya healer known as a hierbero, which translates loosely as herbal doctor. While Austin might seem the perfect place to come to proselytize for medicinal herbs and alternative medicine, he was here on a mission of another sort. Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based non- profit with an office in Chiapas, had sponsored his trip and billed it as the Biopiracy Tour.

In a voice so soft I could barely hear him, he began to speak in Tzeltal-Maya-accented Spanish about a”little problem.” The problem was a 2.5 million dollar, five-year U.S.-government sponsored research project in Chiapas that involved extensive surveys about plants and the conditions they were used to treat: How were the plants harvested, and when? Were there special special harvest rituals? If there was a mixture of ingredients for herbal remedies, how were the ingredients mixed, and in what order? How was the medicine prepared and administered? In addition to the surveys, the project involved plans to cultivate medicinal plants for local and international markets, search for alternatives to chemical pesticides and search for new prescription drugs. It was that last part that really rankled Don Antonio, who saw the whole thing as a scam so outsiders could patent and profit from the kinds of things his ancestors had been doing for generations.

At first he didn’t really know what the project was all about. But the more he knew the less he liked. “The healers of the region have cures,” he said. “We don’t need this research. What we want is a project that benefits the people of Chiapas. We don’t want division. In 1994 we said, “Ya! Basta!” to deceit, to lies, to marginalization. Indigenous people don’t want to hear about ‘intellectual property.'”

If you were to compile a list of complaints from a Mayan Indian living in a place where the distribution of income and resources is notoriously skewed, you would not expect “intellectual property”-a phrase associated with laws about patent, trademark and copyright-to be among them. But Don Antonio and the project he opposes are part of a larger story, the ongoing debate about natural resources-who owns them and how they should be used. The debate is 500 years old and as recent as the latest Internet bulletin.

In traditional societies the world over plants are often the only source of medicine, while in the industrial world they have been the basis for many of the most common as well as the most complex prescription drugs. For years, collectors took what they wanted from far-off forests and jungles, brought it back to the laboratory and patented the results. They profited freely from what experts in international law now call the “genetic resources” of other nations. Just about everyone agrees that fits the definition of biopiracy. But what about indigenous knowledge? What was that? And how were you supposed to put a monetary value on any of this?

More recently, bioprospecting partnerships have been formed to search for new pharmaceuticals developed from natural resources in exchange for monetary compensation and the transfer of technology. To Global Exchange, the difference between bioprospecting and biopiracy is minimal or non-existent. They describe bioprospecting as a scheme that co-opts universities and non-governmental organizations and transforms local communities and institutions into maquiladoras for the pharmaceutical industry. The projects inevitably raise questions about the relationship of researchers to local communities. What kind of research? For whom? Who represents the indigenous community, in this case the Maya?

For the past two years the Council of Indigenous Traditional Midwives and Healers of Chiapas (Compitch), a coalition of indigenous healers, has been on a campaign to permanently shut down the project called “ICBG Maya.” They argue that Mexico lacks the legal framework for such projects, that the project provides no substantial benefits to the local communities, and that the communities involved have not given their prior informed consent.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project includes researchers from the University of Georgia, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Ecosur), a Mexican research institute, and Molecular Nature Limited., a small Welsh pharmaceutical company. It is one of several International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) projects that the National Institutes of Health funds in Asia, Africa and Latin America. All were designed to combine bioprospecting with conservation and economic development.

Directing the Chiapas project is Brent Berlin, a world-renown ethnobiologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia. Berlin and his wife Elois Ann, also a professor of anthropology at the University and member of the ICBG Maya project, have worked in Chiapas for over 40 years. The Berlins say they are victims of a misinformation campaign that paints them as proxies for transnationals. Sometimes the debate over bioprospecting reminds Berlin of debates over Marxism in the 1960s: “I feel like I’m back at Berkeley again, smelling tear gas. Capitalism is not going to go away.”

Questioned about benefits to local communities, he points to some 25 Maya trained in laboratory and transcription techniques and some 80,000 dollars in unused laboratory equipment stored away in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which could be used to start a natural products industry in the region. He also points to 50 communities in the Chiapas Highlands that signed agreements accepting the project. Like Don Antonio, he quotes Zapatista texts on indigenous autonomy-though the Zapatistas themselves have added their voice to the call for a moratorium on bioprospecting.

As the debate over the project continues, it’s become increasingly polarized, with accusations of lies, spies, cultural and scientific ignorance, all wrapped around the complex debate over the privatization of knowledge and the commercialization of biodiversity. How a scholar whose work focuses on documenting the scientific basis of traditional Maya medicine ended up in the middle is best explained by the Spanish word coyuntura. It literally means juncture, but in the broader sense it describes a coming together of forces, a unique moment in time. The story of Brent Berlin is the story of the coyuntura of technology, international law, indigenous rights, the politics of Mexico and the politics of Chiapas.

At 64, Overton Brent Berlin has straight gray hair that stops short of his shoulders, and the voice of someone used to dictating in complete paragraphs. Described by his colleagues as a straight-arrow scientist, he is fluent in Spanish and Tzeltal Maya, and apt to move into Spanish from time to time, even when speaking to a gringa.

Born in Pampa, Texas, he once entertained vague notions of becoming a petroleum engineer or geologist, but instead veered into anthropology. A linguistics professor encouraged him to do fieldwork in Chiapas. Accompanied by Elois Ann and their infant daughter, he arrived in 1960, when it was not uncommon to see Indians ordered off the sidewalk and into the street. As he began to decipher the Tzeltal language, Berlin discovered that to know anything about the Maya he would need to know something about plants. Plants dominated their daily life, their rituals and their thoughts.

In the mid-1980s the Berlins began work on an encyclopedia of Maya medicine. Their research led to the publication Ethnobiology of the Highland Maya of Chiapas Mexico: The Gastrointestinal Diseases, an exhaustive catalogue of endless variations of diarrhea and intestinal parasites and the many varieties of medicinal plants used as remedies in communities where prescription drugs are either unavailable, or not affordable. It was not exactly a best-seller. “Most anthropologists would rather write about burning candles, the smell of incense, prayers…the magic of the Maya medicine,” Berlin once told me. Shit, as he would say, does not sell as well as shamans.

The gastrointestinal book was supposed to be just the first volume–it would take another 11 volumes and (another lifetime or two) to complete the work and oversee its translation. The Berlins already had lost time on a research project they had to abandon in Peru. When they heard about the ICBG program at the National Institutes of Health, it seemed like a perfect fit.

It was 1992, the same year as the United Nations Summit on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro, which produced the Convention on Biodiversity. The Convention, which the United States has never ratified, recognized that nations had sovereign rights over their biological resources, and also officially acknowledged the existence of traditional indigenous knowledge. Countries signing the agreement were then supposed to set up equitable mechanisms whereby biodiversity could be owned and commercialized. How that was supposed to happen has been the subject of endless debate at academic conferences and rounds of treaty negotiations ever since. In Costa Rica, for example, the government entered into an agreement with Merck in what was then considered a model program. In exchange for a one million-dollar upfront payment and an undisclosed percentage of royalties in the event a new drug was discovered, Merck was granted access to much of the nation’s wilderness.

Technical advances in screening techniques had made such agreements attractive to pharmaceutical companies. So did the dire warnings issued in Rio about the exponential loss of biodiversity. Every year, species were going extinct, and with them the possibility of discovering a drug for cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis, etc. Although the likelihood of discovering such a drug might be one in a million–tantamount to winning the Mexican lottery as Berlin was fond of saying–it had happened. The National Cancer Institute had a big hit with taxol, the number-one selling cancer drug, which was originally derived from the bark of the Pacific yew from old-growth forests in the Northwestern United States. Cashing in was Bristol Meyers, which developed and marketed the Institute’s discovery.

The Berlins applied for a grant. Wary of the implications of working with a pharmaceutical company in a traditional society, they decided to opt for academics engaged in pharmacological research instead. Their application was denied, but they were encouraged to apply again-this time with a commercial partner. Several years later they had another chance.

A lot had happened in Chiapas in the interim, beginning with the Zapatista uprising in January, 1994, and ending with the December 1997 massacre of 45 unarmed Zapatista supporters by paramilitaries at Acteal, in the municipality of Chenalhó. Chenalhó was one of the areas where the Berlins proposed to work.

At NIH there was some concern. But the Berlins had extensive experience working in the area, and the U.S Embassy in Mexico City registered no concern. “I don’t think there were many people at the time we made the award who would have said [the project] would not fly,” Joshua Rosenthal, the head of the ICBG program, would recall several years later. He thought the proposal was one of the best he had ever seen, and the application was approved in 1998. But the project got off to a rocky start. For a while it appeared as if there would be no partner. Xenova, the pharmaceutical company that had joined the consortium, was undergoing a corporate buyout and restructuring; the new owners were not interested in natural products research. Finally, in May 1999, Molecular Nature Limited, the Welsh pharmaceutical company, joined the University of Georgia and Ecosur, the Mexican research institute, in signing an agreement in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Conspicuously missing, however, was a fourth partner–the Maya themselves.

The project had envisioned creating a trust to administer royalties in the event that a drug was discovered. But here they ran into thorny issues of intellectual property and patents. The agreement referred to the creation of a civic organization called Promaya, which stood for “Protection of Maya Intellectual Property Rights.” In the event that a new drug was discovered through the project, royalties would be divided equally among Promaya, the University of Georgia, Ecosur and Molecular Nature.

It would take a while for news of the agreement to reach Compitch, the indigenous healers group, headquartered across town in San Cristóbal de las Casas. And when it did, Don Antonio and his colleagues were not pleased.

For years the Berlins had worked on the same issues with more or less the same goals as the traditional healers’ organization. But as time wore on it became clear that Compitch was skeptical about the project in general and the Berlins in particular. One reason may have been the relationship that the Berlins had cultivated with Patrocinio González, a former governor of Chiapas who had presided over the state in the early ’90s, a time when the situation in the countryside deteriorated and human rights violations were rampant. Whatever had happened in the past, Compitch now had more urgent concerns. In the summer of 1999, the project started in earnest, with the Promaya trust still not established. Teams of Maya collaborators began conducting surveys and collecting plants. The way Don Antonio saw it, his plants and his knowledge were being robbed.

Compitch contacted a Canadian organization called RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) that had long campaigned for farmers’ rights in the dispute over intellectual property and seeds, and whose director claims to have coined the term “biopiracy.” In December of 1999, RAFI issued a bulletin that demonstrated, just as Zapatista supporters did several years earlier, the power of the Internet. “Biopiracy Project in Chiapas Mexico Denounced by Mayan Indigenous Groups,” appeared on listservs all over the world. The Berlins, who had helped draft a code of ethics for ethnobiologists, were now being denounced as biopirates. They issued their own electronic response: “Whose Knowledge? Whose Benefits?”, asserting that they weren’t appropriating sacred knowledge, but “knowledge that is openly shared between Maya households, communities and municipalities and outsiders.” They questioned Compitch’s authority to speak for all the Maya in the area, and questioned the role of the ladino advisers and international organizations in speaking for Compitch. Immediately RAFI shot off another bulletin. “The project’s partners have fallen victim to the …syndrome wherein anthropologists (who usually know better) delude themselves into thinking that it is their lot in life to set the rules of engagement.”

The road from the airport at Tuxtla Gutiérrez to San Cristóbal wends its way from balmy tropics to cloud covered mountains–a remarkable diversity of topography and climate for a drive of less than two hours. It is the extremes of climate and topography, that make Chiapas so rich in plant biodiversity. But the combination of economic, social and political factors that led to the Zapatista uprising also threaten the region’s natural resources.

Compitch, where I first met Don Antonio last August, is located in San Cristóbal, but a kilometer and a world away from the city center. It’s a collection of
squat, uninspired buildings with three tall Mayan crosse
at the entrance. Inside is an herbal garden, and a small museum dedicated to traditional Mayan medicine, in which plants are vitally important, but not the whole picture. In addition to hierberos, Compitch includes parteras (midwives), hueseros (bonesetters), rezadores, who offer prayers to the nearby mountains, and iloles, who, like their counterparts in Chinese medicine, listen to their patients’ pulses to diagnose their illnesses. In a small workshop, Compitch members were preparing herbal remedies; Don Antonio sold me several packets of eucalyptus and other herbs he said would be good for a nagging cough. I was supposed to brew a tea and drink it three times a day. At five pesos a packet-worth about 60 cents at the time-it seemed like a good deal. Cheaper than antibiotics that didn’t seem to be working.

It was election week in Chiapas, and Don Antonio and the others were meeting to discuss the latest proposal from the Berlins. Throughout the spring, federal environmental officials had tried to broker negotiations. The sessions had not gone well. At one point, Elois Ann became exasperated and declared that scientists didn’t need to go around informing non-governmental organizations about their research. There was a debate about the meaning of the word “tatik,” meaning elder. And there was a clash over the meaning of a graduate students report that had been leaked to Compitch, whose representatives concluded that Berlin had stolen live plants from Chiapas, planted them in Georgia and was now conducting biotechnological experiments. That was not the case. But the allegation would continue.

Berlin would frequently insist that he had tried to follow federal regulations to the letter of the law. His project had been the only one in Mexico to apply for permits to collect plants for biotechnological experiments. The government had not yet made a decision and no experiments would begin until the permits were at hand. Meanwhile, other projects-not to mention freelance biopirates who simply transported plants and microorganisms across the border-went about their business without attracting attention. There was even another ICBG project in Mexico run by the University of Arizona. (It has since stopped collecting plants.)

It became clear that the whole issue of collection for scientific purposes–herbariums, for example–and collection for biotechnological experiments, was fundamentally important to botanists and chemists, but it thoroughly confused just about everyone else. From June through November 1999, over 35,000 plants were collected for scientific purposes using a pre-existing permit obtained for Ecosur. Berlin may have thought he was following the rules, such as they were. But to his critics, the fact that collecting had begun at all, was evidence that the project was going much too far, too fast.

Nevertheless, a vague sort of truce had been arranged. To obtain the consent of some 50 Highlands communities, the project had developed a one-hour play that was performed and narrated by the Maya members of ICBG in each of the communities. The Berlins proposed a workshop placing the Maya ICBG project in the context of global concerns about biodiversity and its implications the projects’ host communities. To Compitch, that was hardly enough. The play did not present the larger picture. Berlin had proposed a workshop where this could be discussed. Compitch said they would get back to him after they took the proposal back to the local communities. The morning I arrived in San Cristóbal, it did not look like there would be much interest in a workshop on biodiversity and patents.

Among those I spoke to was a medical doctor who had come to Chiapas twenty years earlier to work in a government program. Unlike many young physicians dispatched to Chiapas from urban universities, Rafael Alarcón was fascinated by traditional Mayan medicine and decided to stay on. It wasn’t just plants, he explained. It was a whole way of life, a whole philosophy and belief system. He worried that conflict in Chiapas was taking its toll on young people, who were further removed from that belief system. The iloles’power came from their dreams, and young people weren’t dreaming anymore, he explained.

One of the things that bothered him was that Berlin always focused on the plants, but there was a lot more to Mayan medicine. Alarcón was also bothered by the fact that he saw too many people with the chronic respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases of poverty. He insisted that the ICBG Maya project wasn’t the kind of research the regioned needed. Drugs like taxol might be wonderful for breast or lung cancer, but that’s not what was needed the most, he said. He had to worry about those chronic diseases first. Although he insisted that he had nothing against Berlin or his research prior to the ICBG Maya project, Alarcón added that he sometimes thought the whole thing ironic. How could researchers come to Chiapas and listen to people for years, and then try to re-package what they learned to those very same people? He complained that the project was becoming too much of a drain on his own time. He had spent hours on the Internet trying to learn about bioprospecting, and to him it all came down to money. “How much was that knowledge, those plants worth?” he asked. Was it worth the thousands of dollars of laboratory equipment that Ecosur had received to turn the region into a maquiladora for the pharmaceutical industry?

The next day I posed that question at Ecosur. Like Alarcón, the scientists I spoke to, Mario González and Luis García, complained that the controversy over the ICBG project was taking a disproportionate amount of their time. Ecosur had hired a physician to work on community relations for the project. A staff person was spending hours listening to and transcribing Alarcón’s interviews on local radio stations. The doctor had been denouncing the theft of Chiapas’ natural resources.

Ecosur was founded about 25 years ago, with a mission that focused on conservation, sustainable development and health and population studies. It has several branches throughout southeastern Mexico, and has somewhat of an elitist reputation. The Berlins have been teaching there part of the year for over ten years. After the Zapatista rebellion, Ecosur was one of the institutions the area that received an influx of funding from the Mexican government. Until recently, Ecosur had had a positive relationship with Compitch, and continues to work with the healers’ organization on other projects.

The last thing anyone wanted for Chiapas, García said, was anything that caused more division. There was already too much division in the highland communities. García is an agronomist who studies traditional farming practices that are often more beneficial than so-called modern farming for many local communities. He saw the ICBG Maya project as a way to further that research. Still, he was somewhat reticent. The controversy had taught them something–Ecosur needed to re-think its relationship with indigenous communities and re-think the way research projects were designed and organized. Maybe Ecosur would sponsor a workshop with the communities later that fall.

Before I left Chiapas, Ecosur arranged for me to visit one of the gardens that had been established by the ICBG project at the request of a community in Chenalhó. The 20-mile trip from San Cristóbal took about two hours. As the Ecosur van approached the checkpoint at the outskirts of town, we were quickly waved through. We zipped past the bleak plaza, parked the van, walked down a long muddy trail, up a steep incline and past a milpa or cornfield. The Ecosur workers apologized-the trilingual signs for the garden were not yet ready.

On our way, we had passed a single shack, and a young woman who lived there was now coming to join us. She told us that her father had known about medicinal plants, but until recently, she did not. At Compitch I had met a midwife who said she had been stopped in Chenalhó when she passed the community gardens, accused of spying on the project and briefly held prisoner. I wondered if the two women knew each other and what they would have to say. And knew that I would never really know what they really thought.

One morning last fall Brent Berlin switched on his computer and discovered that he had turned into the devil. A Mexican non-governmental organization in San Cristóbal had begun circulating a five-part Internet series called “Pukuj and Biopiracy.” Pukuj is a particularly nefarious Tzeltal/Tzotzil version of the devil. About the same time, several prominent Mexican academics added their signatures to a petition calling for a temporary moratorium on bioprospecting in Mexico; the timing was just not right, they said. The Federal Attorney General for the Environment declared another high-profile bioprospecting project to be invalid. That project involved an agreement between the National Autonomous University in Mexico City and Diversa, a biotech company in San Diego. The agreement had been negotiated by Gabriel Szekely, considered Mexico’s pre-eminent environmental attorney. (Szekely had helped fight Texas’ Sierra Blanca nuclear waste project.) But the Attorney General had ruled that the University had no authority to enter into such an agreement.

At long last environmental officials also came round to making a decision on the ICBG Maya project–there would be no permits for any specimen collecting, whether for scientific or biotechnological purposes. Ecosur decided to put the project on hold and would not re-apply for collecting permits unless two conditions were granted: 1) clear and firm regulations on bioprospecting, and 2) the formation of a representative indigenous political organization with whom agreements on scientific research could be negotiated.

The first year of the new millennium was ending badly for the ICBG Maya project. As if things weren’t bad enough, growing criticism of the global pharmaceutical industry was not helping the cause of the ICBG Maya. “AIDS Gaffes in Africa Come Back to Haunt Drug Industry Back Home,” reported the Wall Street Journal in an article that began with an observation on the latest novel of spy-thriller master John le Carre, The bad guy was a sinister pharmaceuticals giant called KVH.

But Mexico had a new president, the first from a party other than the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in over 70 years, and Chiapas had a new governor, a former PRIista, who had run as an opposition candidate. One of the first things that President Vicente Fox had done after he was elected was travel through Latin America. In Costa Rica he had visited the Merck project. Although he had some strange ideas about maquiladoras in Chiapas (Berlin would never be convinced that they were the solution for the economic problems in the state), Fox would seem to be interested in projects like the ICBG Maya. The change in government at both the state and national level seemed to bode well.

Earlier this year, Berlin put the finishing touches on a report to NIH: “A delegation of Zapatista rebels will march to Mexico City this month (with or without ski masks it is still not certain) to present their case before the Mexican Congress that it implement the much-debated San Andrés peace accords that have been onhold since 1996. How these remarkable events will be translated into a positive future for the Maya ICBG is the challenge of our next months in Chiapas.”

As it turned out, the Zapatistas marched with masks, and the Congress passed a watered down version of the accords. Missing in the final version was the provision for communal ownership of natural resources. The Zapatistas denounced the new indigenous rights bill. The new governor of Chiapas was gloomy about prospects for the re-opening of negotiations; for the time being, he saw no options.

Meanwhile, Fox had launched something called the Plan Puebla-Panama project, a major infrastructure project that was supposed “to ensure that the fruits of globalization reach all corners of Mexico.” The plan had the support of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and was roundly denounced by environmental and other groups. It seems inevitable that the ICBG Maya project will be pulled into a larger battle over indigenous rights and development for a long time to come.

Still, Berlin found reasons to be hopeful about the project’s future. One of the community gardens had organized as a non-governmental organization. That meant it could enter into agreements with funding agencies and sign conventions to participate in research projects. “At the local level, the efforts of the Maya ICBG project indicate that the Maya themselves are assuming a more direct role in their destiny in these ‘new times’ for Mexico,” he wrote in his report to NIH.

But which Maya? Who represented the Maya? Was Don Antonio not part of the “new times” for Mexico?

Soon after he returned from Global Exchange’s Biopiracy Tour, Don Antonio had taken to the Internet. There had been some new developments and he wanted to send out an alert:

“Excuse us for addressing you for the same situation as two years ago. We thought the matter of the biopirating of our medicinal plants…was over. But this man doesn’t understand and he is insisting on carrying out his project. He has sought another way to rob our plants. Mr. Berlin has promoted and supported the formation of another indigenous organization to carry out his ends.”

Don Antonio went on to report that he had sent a file on the matter to the governor of Chiapas. Finally, he noted that he had recommended to Ecosur that “this guest researcher be withdrawn from the institution, since he’s going to bring more problems to our communities.”

Earlier this month a representative of the government of Chiapas stepped in to see if there wasn’t some way to bring everyone together. One possibility would be to remove the drug discovery part of the project–no more patents, no more intellectual property–and invite Compitch to participate. Although that would be a quite a departure from the program’s mandate, the head of the ICBG program at the National Institutes of Health said he might be willing to sign on. Berlin will have until the end of July to submit a new proposal, and then Joshua Rosenthal at NIH will decide whether to continue to fund the project. In the end, a project that was supposed to be nonpolitical would require a very political solution. It would also depend on a tremendous leap of faith and trust–something that had always been lacking in Chiapas.

When I last spoke to Berlin, he was in Chiapas, at the home he and Elois Ann had built on the outskirts of San Cristóbal, along the Panamerican Highway. I asked how long he would be in Chiapas, thinking in terms of his academic schedule and the next semester in Georgia. He misunderstood me–or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was really responding to Don Antonio.

When I asked my question, Berlin didn’t miss a beat: “Forever,” he said. “We’re going to be here forever.”