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FEATURE The Professor and the Plants Prospecting for problems in Chiapas BY BARBARA BELEJACK PHOTOS BY MARCIA PERSKIE Throug ne night not long ago I wandered into the back room at Las Manitas Cafe in downtown Austin, squeezed my way onto a crowded bench, and began to listen to Antonio Perez Mendez 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 nonprofit 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 1 .994 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 “intel lectual property”a phrase associated with laws about patent, trademark and copyrightto be among them. But Don Antonio and the project he opposes are part of a larger story, the ongoing debate about natural resourceswho 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 bout 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 pharmaceu ticals developed from natural resources in exchange for monetary compensation and the transfer of technology. To Global Exchange, the difference between bioprospecting and biopira cy is minimal or non-existent. They describe bioprospecting as a scheme that co-opts univer sities 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 . 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. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project includes researchers from the history plants have been more important than politics. Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline, Richard Evans Schultes, ed. 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/22/01