Sunday, October 26, 2008


Third and final installment for this subject.

Probably the biggest contributor to the Latin Americas feeling they may have been “had” by fast-talking business entrepreneurs with their talk of carbon sinks, carbon offsets, carbon footprints and other barely-understood catch phrases that promised pie in the sky was that the business mechanisms were often complex and poorly explained. As these business plans progressed, local inhabitants felt sidelined and disenfranchised because they no longer understood what was going on.

For example: Conflicts have flared up among indigenous groups in Costa Rica after individuals in these communities sold medicinal plants to pharmaceutical companies. This practice is known as bioprospecting; but, also covers a practice some consider to be biopiracy.

Biopiracy is a negative term for the (mis)appropriation of legal rights over indigenous knowledge. This is done by a major pharmaceutical company taking out a patent on the use of a certain plant and all associated biomedical knowledge that the indigenous peoples have developed over the centuries. What makes it biopiracy is that the indigenous groups who originally developed this knowledge and shared it with the outside world have received absolutely no compensation whatsoever in any way, shape or form. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical company is making billions from the knowledge and they are protected by their patent.

A much-cited case is the Rosy Periwinkle (Madagascar Periwinkle). Research into the plant was only prompted by the plant’s traditional medicinal role; but, resulted in the discovery of one of the most lucrative medical agents ever found. Besides the many biologically active chemicals present, vincristine, an agent useful during leukemia chemotherapy was discovered.

Eli Lilly developed a method for purifying vincristine, patented it and marketed the drug. It is widely reported that the country of origin did not receive any payment; although, without the indigenous knowledge, Eli Lilly researchers would never have known where to look.

Biopiracy has been accused of widening the gap of inequality between developing countries and the developed countries.

There have been other glitches as well. Columbian forest communities have reportedly lost control over which trees they are allowed to plant on their own land after they agreed to participate in a carbon-credit reforestation program. In some cases, the forests they were regenerating have been reclassified as stubble so the land could be cleared and used for a timber plantation.

"Although there's a theoretical opportunity for indigenous people, they can't really engage [with market-based schemes] because there's so many hurdles they have to jump," says Hall.

“Just as they have with the financial markets, governments need to step in with a robust rescue plan,” says Sergio Leitao, campaign director of
Greenpeace Brazil. "We can't leave such an important subject for the future of the planet as forest preservation in private hands," he continues.

Sergio points to Paraguay, a country not usually associated with strong public governance. They put a recent moratorium on deforestation, and it cut illegal logging in the heavily-forested state by 83% in one year. Simone Lovera, author of the report, has another idea. Why not leave the forest communities of Latin America to protect their natural habitat?

Simone points out that the best-preserved, best-managed forests today are found on indigenous territories. "Indigenous-led conservation initiatives have proven to be very cost-efficient," she says.

Regrettably, few of the indigenous peoples who reside in Latin America’s forests will be able to attend the climate change talks in Poland in December. Hopefully, there will be enough people representing their ideals to cause everyone to take a fresh look at the problem.

1 comment:

kathi said...

Reminds me of what I saw in South America (Peru, mostly) about 20 years ago - interstate highways that just stopped. The locals said that each politician who came to power started some project, then when they got ousted, it stopped, never to be completed. But, it's one thing when it's done 'in-country,' another when outsiders come in and take from for profit.