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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 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 yth, 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 milliontantamount to winning the Brent Berlin Mexican lottery as Berlin was fond of sayingit 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 againthis 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 ChenalhO. ChenalhO 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 Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. Conspicuously missing, however, was a fourth partnerthe 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 Cristobal 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 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/22/01