Biotechnology and Indigenous People


In l993, during the first meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, a group of indigenous representatives met with Rafe Pomerance, the head of the U.S. Government delegation. He patiently answered our questions about biosafety, and his country’s refusal to sign on to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). But when he said, “. . . everything within the Convention is negotiable except for one issue, which is intellectual property rights,” I got worried.

I explained that our views diverge from his, from that of transnational corporations, and from Western thinking, in general. We simply don’t believe that the western intellectual property rights regime should be imposed on us, nor on the rest of world for that matter. “That is why you need to be part of the global market: to protect your intellectual property rights,” he responded. But this is one of the problems: we don’t have any control over this global market economy. How can we protect our rights in an arena where we don’t have any say over the rules of the game and we are not even acknowledged as key players? It is precisely the market economy which marginalized our indigenous economic systems.

A year later, I was on a panel with Andre Langanay, a former committee member of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), at the “Patents, Genes, and Butterflies” Conference held in Berne, Switzerland, on 20 to 21 October l994. He was asked to talk about the HGDP and I presented my critique of this project. During the open forum portion he said he couldn’t understand what indigenous peoples have against the extraction of their blood if this means that they can contribute to the discovery of new cures for diseases. If he were asked to give his blood in order to help others to get well, he would have no second thoughts about it, he argued.

His statement shows how different our worlds are. He has not gone through the experience of being colonized and having his community militarized because the government or a corporation wants to appropriate his people’s lands and resources. Most indigenous peoples have gone through this experience. Much of what we have is being taken away or destroyed in the name of development and progress. The HGDP is still the appropriation of what we have and even of what we are, not just for the sake of science but for more profits. [1]

For those of us whose human rights have been grossly violated, from colonization to the present, it is important that we assert our rights to have control over our own bodies, our territories and resources, and our knowledge and cultures. This is what our opposition to the HGDP is all about. Since the HGDP is one of the biotechnology projects directly impacting us, it has become a major component of the whole discourse on indigenous peoples and biotechnology.

There are divergent views on the role of biotechnology in bringing about sustainable development. The mainstream view is that this will feed the world, cure diseases once thought to be incurable, clean up the environment, and even increase biodiversity. It is an inevitable development of science and technology and it makes no sense to fight against it. On the other hand, there are many who contest these promises and claims. They also question the soundness and ethics of the science which underpins genetic engineering. Indigenous peoples belong to this later category.

Corporations which are engaged in biotechnology are the most ardent proponents of harmonizing intellectual property regimes all over the world. We are worried about how biotechnology and IPRs are being used to further undermine our rights as indigenous peoples. This article will attempt to articulate the perspectives we have regarding modern biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering and IPRs. Indigenous peoples do not have a homogenous view about these. However, there are basic elements which we agree upon. Numerous consultations have been held among indigenous peoples on these issues and this chapter will re-echo some of the views which have emerged from these discussions. I will also share my own views and experiences in dealing with these issues.


Biotechnology can be defined as “any technique that utilizes living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify products, to improve plants and animals or to develop micro-organisms for specific purposes.” (Hobbelink, l991). By this definition, biotechnology is as old as humankind. Ancient farmers, women, and indigenous peoples, have been domesticating and cross-pollinating plants since time immemorial. Cross-breeding and taming of wild animals were also done. Such human interventions have led to the further development of biodiversity, complementing the acts of nature.

Indigenous biotechnologies included fermentation technology to brew beer, wines, and other food preparations, and the domestication of wild plants and animals. We, the Igorot people in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, have been fermenting our own tapey (rice wine) and basi (sugar cane wine) since time immemorial. Tapey is made with a native yeast called bubod which is made by the women. Basi, on the other hand is prepared with some seeds called gamu which comes from the forest.

There are also a host of cross-breeding efforts by indigenous peoples on animals and plants. Potatoes have been domesticated and bred by Huancapi Indians of the Peruvian Andes. The Igorots have been cultivating and breeding a wide variety of camote (sweet potatoes), which were a staple for them before rice was introduced. My father never fails to tell us that as a kid, he grew and was nourished by all kinds and colours of camote. He never saw rice until he became an adolescent. When rice was introduced different varieties were developed by our people to suit the environmental conditions in our territories. In one village alone there are more than ten varieties of rice seeds planted for different weather and soil conditions. Many varieties of other root crops like cassava and taro were also developed.

Indigenous peoples have also discovered a vast array of medicinal plants, and are still using many of these through the generations. In the late l970s to the early 80s I worked with an NGO doing community-based health work and we did a research on the medicinal plants in our region, the Cordillera region of the Philippines. We published a book which includes not only the medicinal plants but also their uses, which parts of the plant can be used, and the various forms of preparation and administration. With the rush of biopiracy, we are having second thoughts whether we should even show this book to others. However, we are also aware that since this is already published, it is already in the public domain.

To say that indigenous peoples have contributed significantly to the present body of knowledge possessed by scientists, such as ethnobotanists, ethnopharmacologists, and by agriculturists, foresters, and food technologists, is an understatement. The development of these indigenous biotechnologies is still continuing. However, the recent moves of biotechnology and agribusiness corporations to appropriate what we have and know will influence whether indigenous knowledge and technologies will continue to flourish.

Today biotechnology is more often associated with the most modern technologies, particularly genetic engineering, new cellular procedures based on the old technology of tissue culture, and embryo transfer. It is this modern biotechnology which poses a major threat to our indigenous values and belief systems, lifestyles, biological diversity, and the last remaining indigenous sustainable resource management systems, and socio-politico-economic formations. The philosophical, social, economic, ecological and cultural implications of these are serious not only for us indigenous peoples but for the whole world. From here on, the word biotechnology will refer to these new biotechnologies, particularly genetic engineering.


The capacity of biotechnology to transfer genes within and between species of plants, animals, micro-organisms and human beings, to convert living material into new shapes and forms, to redesign and engineer new life forms within a short period of time is unprecedented in human history. This is the big difference between the new biotechnologies and what we previously knew as biotechnology. In the traditional cross-breeding of plants and animals, the reproductive process was not drastically short-circuited. Genetic engineering not only short circuits the reproductive process, but it creates new life-forms never before seen on the face of the earth.

While it is true that throughout human history people have altered their environment and manipulated living things including themselves, this ability is constrained by nature itself. Plants can be bred with other plants and animals can be bred with closely related species. Genetic engineering, however, can transcend nature’s boundaries and engineer or create far beyond what was possible two decades ago. It is capable of changing the fundamental structures of living things because genetic material from an animal can be inserted into a plant or an animal gene can be inserted into humans, etc. The boundaries between species are broken down by genetic engineering. Horizontal gene transfer (transfer of genes between plants, animals, and humans) which rarely takes place spontaneously can now be easily done through genetic engineering.[2]

Micro-organisms, plants, animals, and human beings or parts of these are the main raw materials for the biotechnology industry, just as inanimate, non-renewable matter (mineral ores, oil, petroleum,etc.) were the main raw materials for the industrial revolution. The gross exploitation of non-renewable matter is regarded by indigenous peoples as the rape of mother earth. The history of colonization and exploitation of many indigenous peoples in various parts of the world is the story of how the colonizers and corporations got their hands on the rich deposits of minerals and the abundance of forests and forest products found in indigenous peoples’ territories. All kinds of methods, legal and illegal, were employed by them to appropriate this natural wealth.

The violence done by the colonizers and even post-colonial governments on our ancestors and ourselves in the process of extracting and appropriating resources make us feel that having this kind of wealth is a curse. If we don’t have these resources maybe we would have been ignored and left to carry on, living our own lives. However, this is not to be because many of our territories are not only rich in minerals but are also biodiversity-rich. Biotechnology can fragment living matter into its smallest components and commodify this. Now, with the promise of profits in the genetic resources of our bodies, and in plants, animals, and micro-organisms found in our territories, we are faced with a more insidious and dangerous threat.


The dilemma for indigenous peoples as they deal with this issue is whether to accept that these developments in science and technology are inevitable. If so, the only option left for us is to forge the best possible contracts, so we can equitably share benefits derived from these resources and make rules on access which are mutually beneficial. This maybe the pragmatic approach, one which follows the advice given by the U.S. delegate mentioned earlier.

A related view is that there is nothing inherently wrong with biotechnology and therefore we should not fight it. The problem does not lie with this science and technology, per se, but with who has control over it. If we can have control, then we will be able to use it to our own benefit and to the benefit of humankind.Thus, the strategy should be focused on how to ensure that the transfer of this technology to the Third World and to indigenous peoples can be facilitated. We can lobby governments to exert greater control over the technology on behalf of the people, or build the so-called peoples’ government which will precisely do this.

A third view is that biotechnology has its own inherent logic, dynamics and dangers, which will define not only the directions development will take but also the dominant world view and individual consciousness. Control over biotechnology is an illusion because you cannot have real control. Its inherent logic will define how you will interpret and organize your systems. Therefore the strategy should be to critique biotechnology and oppose its further development. This means exposing and opposing various aspects of biotechnology: the science or worldview which underpins it, its economics, politics, and social implications. To protest the patenting of life forms is one aspect of this strategy. Most indigenous peoples support this third position, although there are those who are supportive of the first two views.

Many indigenous peoples’ conferences have issued declarations and positions against life patents, calling for a ban on the Human Genome Diversity Project, and a moratorium on biopiracy in indigenous peoples’ territories.[3] However, we know that in spite of these protests, biopiracy is still taking place, collections of human genetic materials are continuing, and various life-forms are still being patented.

While we are not alone in taking these positions, we are the ones who are always accused of being anti-development or anti-progress. We don’t apologize that we have these views even if such accusations are leveled at us. At a time when the speed of so-called development or progress is like a runaway train, especially with biotechnology and information technology, it is necessary for some people to suggest stepping on the brakes.


Those of us who have resisted colonization, and whose economies have not been thoroughly eroded by the capitalist market economy, have managed to retain aspects of our pre-colonial cultures. Our cosmologies still revolve around the need to live and relate harmoniously with nature. Our technologies are still rudimentary and not as powerful as those developed in industrialized countries which are capable of redirecting nature and channeling its forces elsewhere.

Indigenous peoples who are in this state of development still maintain an intimate union with nature. Indigenous religion, which is usually a form of animism, reflects a reverential attitude towards creation, in general. Even those who got converted to Christianity or Islam or any of the dominant world religions maintain a folk religiousity which combines the dominant religion with indigenous practices.

This is not to say that our own traditions are unchanging in spite of all the developments around us and those brought into our communities. Our cultures are not static. What we have now are results of the survival and resistance strategies to avoid or to cope with the aggressive imposition of the colonizers’ ways. While we retain some aspects of our pre-colonial cultures, there has also been an accomodation of the colonizers’s cultures.

The alienation between humanity and nature which is characteristic of highly industrialized societies is rarely experienced by indigenous peoples who still largely rely on nature for their basic survival. Even those who have been introduced to the sophisticated mechanical technology developed since the industrial revolution have somehow, consciously kept aspects of their ancestors’ belief systems and cultures.

This can be seen among the indigenous peoples found in industrialized countries. The hunters and fisherfolks among the Inuits in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, for example, do not relate to their prey in the same manner as those who own and manage commercial fish trawlers. They are aware of the need to harvest sustainably to allow for the regeneration of species. They strive to maintain their communities even amidst the strong pressurea from the dominant society to assimilate and integrate with the ways of the white people.

The lifeways and spirituality of the Igorots, many of who are still small-owner tillers, is very much attuned to the agricultural cycle.[4] Community rites and rituals are not done only during births, weddings and deaths but also during the agricultural seasons of planting, harvesting, and weeding. There are rituals to call for the rains to come. The agricultural seasons were determined by the seed varieties we planted and by the climate. For many generations we used indigenous seeds. The introduction of the high-yielding, hybrid seeds of the Green Revolution, however, disrupted the usual periods for community rituals. This is one reason, along with the required chemical inputs, which made many of our farmers go back to the use of indigenous varieties.


The Philosophical Plane

Biotechnology carries with it a worldview or philosophy which is reductionist and determinist. A living organism is reduced into its smallest component, the gene. The explanation of the way the organism behaves is sought in the genes. This worldview also regards nature as something which should be controlled, dominated, and engineered or re-engineered.

This runs counter to indigenous beliefs, knowledge, and practice. The cosmological vision of most indigenous peoples regards nature as divine and a coherent whole, and human beings as a part of nature. Thus, it is imperative that humans should create meaningful solidarity with nature. This is the “web of life” concept or what is now referred to as the ecosystem approach which appreciates the relationship and bonds of all of creation with each other. Human beings have to work and live with nature and not seek to control and dominate it. Whether we recognize it or not, we humans are totally dependent on water, air, soil, and all life forms and the destruction or pollution of these will also mean our destruction. The integrity or intrinsic worth of a human being, plant, or animal is measured in relation to how it affects and relates with the others.

For indigenous peoples, biodiversity and indigenous knowledge or indigenous science cannot be separated from culture and territoriality. Thus, the genetic determinism of biotechnology conflicts with the holistic worldview of indigenous peoples.

With the invention of technologies which control and re-engineer nature, human beings have succeeded in setting themselves apart from nature. This is what happened after the industrial revolution and now with the biotechnology and information revolution. Plants, animals, and humans, are reduced into their genetic components and their integral wholeness is not important anymore. These separate components can be manipulated and engineered at will and for commercial purposes.

The engineering mindset is becoming the norm. Efficiency, not only of machines and human beings but of all living things is the goal. Since it is life which is being engineered scientists can act as God. Because profits and economic growth are the most important parameters used to measure development and progress, the adverse environmental, economic, cultural and social impacts of biotechnology are viewed as insignificant .

The way biotechnology further promotes and reinforces the mechanistic, materialistic, reductionist and dualist worldview is a major concern for indigenous peoples. There is an observable, growing intolerance toward other cultures and worldviews. Eugenics is promoted with the universalization of the western standards of beauty and efficiency. Being beautiful means being tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed, and slim.

For indigenous peoples to accept the genetic determinist view, they have to radically alter their world views, their ways of knowing and thinking, and their ways of relating with nature and with each other. Maybe social and natural scientists will say that this is inevitable, because we have to move on with the progress achieved in science and technology. However, with the prevailing environmental, social, economic, and cultural crisis, the dominant worldview has lost the moral high ground.

Indigenous peoples who have not totally surrendered the cosmological vision inherited from their ancestors, and have indeed developed it further, are in a better moral and ethical position. If indigenous peoples keep asserting their own philosophy and their right to believe and practice it, we might someday evolve a different philosophy or perspective which provides a balance between the two extremes.

Ecological and Economic Implications

The ecological risks of biotechnology have been amply elaborated by NGOs and scientists. Genetically engineered organisms are living beings. and if these are released they can mutate, multiply, and migrate. Should they have adverse environmental impacts there is no way to recall them or contain them. Since indigenous peoples’ territories are the last remaining biodiversity-rich centres, the erosion of this biodiversity could be facilitated by the invasion of more evolutionary advantaged transgenic plants.

Biotechnology claims that it will be able to clean up the environmental pollution brought about by industrial activities such as mining, oil exploration, etc. This falls into a typically end-of-the-pipeline kind of pollution management, and we have yet to see this working on a large-scale. From the experiences of indigenous peoples, mining and oil drilling operations are still the worst polluters and the most destructive to the land. The track records of mining and oil companies in rehabilitating what they have destroyed in indigenous peoples’ territories is very poor, to say the least.

In fact, from what we can gather, the efforts of biotechnologists are more often directed towards developing transgenic micro-organisms which can eat into the mineral ores and isolate precious minerals such as gold. Then there will be a lesser need for workers and machines which process the ores. The ecological implications of releasing such engineered microbes into the environment, however, is not seriously considered or addressed. Studies on the environmental impacts of the release of transgenic organisms, whether to clean up oil pollution or to ameliorate the pollution of rivers and soils by toxic chemicals used by the mines, are not adequate. The consequences are not publicly known, especially by those who are directly affected.

The appropriation of indigenous knowledge on plants and plant uses, along with the destruction of indigenous sustainable resource management and agro-forestry practices is also facilitated by biotechnology. Patent applications by scientists, corporations, and even governments for medicinal plants used by indigenous peoples since time immemorial are increasing each day. The neem plant and turmeric in India are very much used by the tribals. Ayahuasca and quinoa in Latin America, kava in the Pacific, the bitter gourd in the Philippines and Thailand are all widely used by indigenous peoples.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), for instance, is a high protein cereal which has been a staple in the diet of millions of indigenous peoples in the Andean countries of Latin America. It has been cultivated and developed since pre-Incan times. Two researchers from the University of Colorado received US patent number 5,304,718 in l994 which gives them exclusive monopoly control over the male sterile plants of the traditional Bolivian Apelawa quinoa variety. This crop is exported to the US and European market and the value of Bolivia’s export market on this is US$1 million per year. The most logical development is that the patent will be taken over by corporations. The hybrid varieties will be used for wide-scale commercial production in the US or Europe, and the Bolivian exports will be prevented from entering the US and European markets. The patent owners will assert their intellectual property rights.

This will lead to the displacement of thousands of small farmers, most of which are indigenous. The other possibility is that lands will fall into the monopoly control of corporations who own the patents or their subsidiaries in Bolivia who will produce quinoa using the hybrid commercial varieties. The genetic erosion of the diverse quinoa varieties developed by indigenous farmers over centuries will take place.[5]

This process is the most probable course of events for many indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. This is made possible because of developments in biotechnology and the legal systems that grant intellectual property rights to those who are able to innovate in high technology laboratories. The Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement of the World Trade Organization has become the standard through which IPR laws are being harmonized the world over. The contributions of indigenous peoples in preserving, sustaining, and developing biodiversity, and resource management systems are not recognized and valued by this prevailing system.


The ambitious Human Genome Project, is a 20-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy in the United States of America to the tune of US $ 20 billion. Scientists working on this belong to a scientific organization called the Human Genome Organization (HUGO). The scientists, however, recognized early on that even if they were able to produce an entire DNA sequence, they would not still have information on the variation of DNA among humans. They would like to know the genetic basis of the biodiversity among humans.

So in l991, they established a committee to develop the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). “The objectives of the HGDP are to collect, analyze, and preserve genetic samples from a host of vanishing human populations.”[6] It is a massive survey of human genetic diversity. By discovering the specific DNA differences between populations, they might be able to reconstruct the origins and historical relationships among groups of peoples. They hope to be able to establish the hereditary basis for differences in human susceptibility to disease. Researchers have already identified 722 human communities for DNA sampling, and have drafted plans to collect and analyze 10 – 15,000 samples at a cost of $23 – 35 million.

They will collect DNA by extracting blood, scraping the inner cheek and collecting hair roots. The collections are called “isolates of historic interest” (IHI). Preservation techniques will be used upon collection, and the researchers will then induce the white blood cells to grow permanently in culture or in vitro. This process is referred to as “immortalizing the cell lines”. According to Judith Kidd, Kenneth Kidd, and Kenneth Weiss in an article ” Human Genome Diversity Initiative”

. . . to ensure permanent samples that can be a resource for many studies, cell lines will be established from individuals in these populations. DNA or the growing cells themselves will then be available to the world research community at no profit or perhaps even at a subsidized cost. Investigators wishing to study questions such as those mentioned here will have access to appropriate material in the cell line “bank”. . .[7]

Leading figures in this project include geneticists and molecular biologists like Luca Cavalli-Sforza from the Department of Genetics, Stanford University, Mary-Claire King of the University of California, Berkeley, Charles Cantor of the U.S. Deparment of Energy and Kenneth Weiss, a molecular anthropologist at the Penn State University. In a paper entitled “Call for a Worldwide Survey of Human Genetic Diversity: A Vanishing Opportunity for the Human Genome Project,” these researchers said:

The populations that can tell us the most about our evolutionary past are those that have been isolated for some time, are likely to be linguistically and culturally distinct, and are often surrounded by geographic barriers. . . Isolated human populations contain much more informative genetic records than more recent urban ones. . .[8]

The scientists are aware that their target populations are fast vanishing, so for them, time is of the essence. Cavalli-Sforza believes that humans are an endangered species in terms of genetic diversity. He calls the HGDP an “urgent last ditch effort” to collect DNA of vanishing peoples, and is determined to finish the mapping within 5 to 10 years.


What do we have against this project? The aims of the project look noble and we can grant that the scientists who are involved in it are most sincere in pursuing such aims. However, a look into how the findings of the Human Genome Project are being used would lead one to doubt about these noble motives. The working relations between the scientists, the science institutes, and the biotechnology corporations such as Genentech and Monsanto are too close for comfort.

It is good that scientists acknowledge that most of the world’s human genetic diversity lies with indigenous peoples and that we are endangered; this underscores the urgent need to save this genetic diversity. Indigenous peoples themselves are saying the very same things. Yet, there is a lack of decisive moves on the part of governments and international bodies to address the genocide and ethnocide of indigenous peoples. Being told that since indigenous peoples are vanishing fast there is an urgent need to collect their DNA, is adding insult to injury.

In a statement I read before the High Level Meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (UN-CSD) in April l993, I said, “After being subjected to genocide and ethnocide for 500 years, the alternative is for our DNA to be collected and stored. This is just a sophisticated version of how the remains of our ancestors were collected and stored in museums and scientific institutions.”[9]

There are many serious concerns to be raised surrounding the project. These revolve around ethical and moral questions. Indigenous peoples’ cultural and religious values and rights are being violated by this project. How are the genetic materials and the information going to be used? Who are going to use them and who will benefit from such use? Some of the problems foreseen with the Human Genome Project (HGP) and, subsequently, the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) are the following;

l. Methods of collecting DNA

Many of the methods employed by corporations to collect genetic materials from indigenous peoples are unethical. One example is the attempt of Hoffman-La Roche to collect the genes of the Aeta people in the Philippines. Since the Aetas became the victims of the eruption of the volcano Mt. Pinatubo in l991, there are medical missions that would visit them once in a while. In 1993, Hoffman-La Roche approached the Hawaii-based Aloha Medical Mission which often visits the Aetas.[10] They tried to link up with this group to collect the genetic materials they need. For people facing calamity, any group that offers charity will be warmly welcomed.

How thoroughly will processes of informed consent be followed, considering the time constraints imposed by the proponents on themselves. Will the collectors be thoroughly briefed? It is easy for people from the Department of Health to go to indigenous peoples communities and gather blood, cheek tissues and hair roots under the guise of medical missions. The proponents are thinking of making use of such government agencies to facilitate the collection phase. Health departments do not have a good record of providing health education and services to indigenous peoples, however. In fact, indigenous women have been subjected to forced sterilizations without their consent. For such a controversial project there is a strong possibility that informed consent will not be applied as it should be.

Further, the target populations are those found in remote places and yet the collected materials, especially the blood, needs to be analyzed immediately in a well-equipped laboratory. The proponents are thinking of possible ways by which they can have access to air transportation, e.g., helicopters. In many Third World countries where a significant part of the target population is located, it is the military who have helicopters. Such helicopters play key roles in the genocide of indigenous peoples.

The need for sophisticated laboratory equipment to study and preserve the genetic collections, means that these collections will usually stay in the developed countries. While the HGDP has proposed to leave duplicate samples of the DNA with the national governments or in regional institutions, the problem of financing such laboratories still remains. While the proponents acknowledge that storage laboratories can be in indigenous communities, they still have a rider which says; “A condition for establishing such labs . . . would have to be that they cooperate on an open basis with investigators interested in the region.” [11]

2. Potential uses of the genetic materials

A new eugenics?

Based on the current uses of genetic materials collected for the Human Genome Project (HGP), there is much to worry about. With the discovery of genetic “defects” and “superior” genes, doctors can already proceed with screening “defective” or “superior” embryos and fetuses. The next foreseen step is to abort “defective” fetuses and to “clone” superior ones. Who will determine what bad genes and good genes are?

Is this the first step towards the production of a superior race or super-human beings? Sex determination through amniocentesis is already widely used, especially in countries like India where there is a preference for male babies. With the advances in genetic engineering, where embryos may someday be manufactured in laboratories, will babies be made to order? The day may come when parents and doctors can create the perfect baby in the laboratory. What will happen if scientists discover the genes that determine the racial characteristics of a fetus? Will parents seek to change the race of their child?

This project is potentially racist, and is actually based on outmoded genetic notions of race. While the proponents claim that the results of the study will erase the basis for discriminating against indigenous peoples, they are not in any position to assert this. The information can be used against indigenous peoples for political purposes. This is like the nuclear bomb. The scientists who created it claim it is for peaceful uses. However, when it gets into the hands of those who want to perpetuate their power over the world, political motives overrule the original intent of the research.

Patenting and commercial production of genetic materials

With the additional information and materials which will be gathered from the HGDP, what other possible programs will be developed? If their aim is to determine the susceptibilities and resistance to diseases, how will such discoveries be used? Will they clone the proteins conferring disease resistances and develop and sell these for profit? The fact that biotechnology corporations are already competing for the control of such materials, and investing in their commercial production and sale, says more than enough.

Patenting is the first step toward the industrial production of inventions or discoveries. Industrial production means the reproduction of millions of identical goods, be these cars, machines, clothes, etc. The patenting of life forms will naturally encourage the reproduction of isolated or modified genetic materials, plants, animals, and human beings. Scientists are now capable of cloning proteins, micro-organisms, and even large mammals. The creation of the sheep called Dolly through cloning may be the fist step toward the cloning of human beings.

Craig Venter, an NIH researcher doing gene mapping and sequencing, has applied for patents on more than two thousand human brain genes. If approved, this will give him and NIH ownership over 5 percent of the total number of human genes. Andrew Kimbrell in his book “The Human Body Shop”, says that should “any one of the genes prove to be extremely valuable, perhaps a key gene for brain cancer research or future therapies to increase I.Q. the researcher and NIH could then form lucrative licensing agreements with biotechnology companies for exclusive commercial exploitation of the genes… The entire human genome, the tens of thousands of genes that are our most intimate common heritage would be owned by a handful of companies.”[12]

The patent application of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the T-cell line infected with human T-cell lymphotrophic viruses (HTLV) type 1 of a 26 year old Guaymi woman from Panama was the first attempt to patent genetic materials from indigenous peoples. This application was submitted as early as l993. International NGOs led by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) discovered this application. An international campaign was launched and Isidro Acosta Galindo, the President of the General Congress of the Ngobe-Bugle (Guaymi) wrote the US Secretary of Commerce demanding that he withdraw the application. The patent claim was denounced by indigenous peoples and NGOs at the meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international gatherings. Because of this international outcry, the patent application was eventually withdrawn, citing the high cost of pursuing a patent claim. [13]

An indigenous man of the Hagahai people of the highlands of Papua New Guinea had his DNA patented by the United States National Institute of Health on 14 March l995. This patent covered a cell line containing an unmodified Hagahai DNA, and was also withdrawn under international pressure.

How will genetic materials and genetic information be used?

Indigenous peoples are famous for resisting “development” or maldevelopment projects which will destroy their traditional territories. Many indigenous communities are also presently waging armed resistance against the states which are oppressing them. Will genes increasing susceptibility to diseases be used to get rid of belligerent indigenous peoples who are against “development” or “progress”?

If genetic information shows that a certain indigenous group is descended from people from other countries, for instance that the ancestors of the Igorots come from Southern China, will this be used to deny us our rights to our ancestral lands? What if a group is found to have a genetically high risk of contracting a certain disease? The history of colonization of indigenous peoples would show that biological warfare was often used on them. Smallpox viruses were spread among the resisting Native Americans in North America. Diseases carried by colonial missionaries and soldiers decimated a significant number of Hawaiian Natives.

Indigenous peoples have always been discriminated against, and have been portrayed by colonizers as primitive and barbaric. In a world where western standards and culture are being propagated by media and corporations, the intolerance for diversity is increasing. Will the collection and immortalization of the cell lines of indigenous peoples, be a justification for actions which will lead to their final disappearance?

3. Genetic determinism

It is a worrisome to see how DNA or genes are being regarded by scientists. How can one explain one’s sexual orientation and behaviour, for example, by saying that there is a homosexuality gene or a violence gene? Genes are part of a whole system and an individual is part of a family and society which are major factors in configuring who she is. There is an overestimation of the role played by genes in determining the behaviour and personalities of peoples.

What could be the possible implications of such conclusions? If the propensity to be a criminal lies with a violence gene, can this person be cured through gene therapy? If homosexuality is caused by a gene and this is regarded as an aberration or a disease, will a time come when gene therapy is applied to “normalize” gays. There is a debate within the gay community over this, with some believing that this discovery will finally diminish the discrimination against gays. Others, however, see this as a reductionist approach. They don’t believe that sexual orientation can be explained primarily through genes.

The line of thinking promoted by the HGDP is fraught with dangers. The value of analyzing society and better understanding the dynamics between the individual and society will be diminished significantly if we believe that social problems like criminality can be solved by gene therapy, genetic engineering, or by aborting fetuses that are shown to have the “criminality genes.”

The Human Genome Project and the Human Genome Diversity Project have facilitated the invasion and colonization of the human body by the market economy. Genes are said to be the building blocks of life; thus if life is to be considered sacred, so should the genes. The effort to map and sequence genes will not just help us learn more about humanity’s genetic diversity, but it is leading directly toward the commercial exploitation of genes. The patenting of these genetic materials will pass the control over life from nature or God, to the patent holders.


The World Council of Churches came out with a statement in l989 calling for a “ban on experiments involving the genetic engineering of the human germline”. The outcry of indigenous peoples’ groups against the HGDP is another response. Obviously there is a great need to speak out against this sacrilegious treatment of human life. There should be a broad coalition of religious groups, human rights and animal rights groups, the women’s movement, indigenous peoples’ movements and environmentalists speaking out on these issues. God did not create women and men in his own image only to be reconfigured and commodified by modern society, especially by scientists.

Indigenous peoples have sustained their protests against the HGDP. In June l993 there was a conference held in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and from this came up the “Mataatua Declaration on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples”. This called for a moratorium on the HGDP until such time that its impact has been fully discussed. As early as l994, I presented a statement at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development asking for a ban on the HGDP. In February l995, Asian indigenous peoples presented a statement at the European Parliament also calling for a halt to this project. During the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, through the leadership of the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network, we agreed on the Beijing Declaration of Indigenous Women which again condemned this project and called for a ban on the project.

In l995, seventeen organizations in the Americas signed onto the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Diversity Project. It called on international organizations to protect all life forms from genetic manipulation and destruction. This statement criticized the efforts of Western science “to negate the complexity of any life form by isolating and reducing it to its minute parts… and (thereby) alter its relationship to the natural order.”[14]

Indigenous peoples, especially those who are members of national and international indigenous organizations, networks, and alliances, are more or less familiar with some of the issues discussed in this paper. There is still a great need to further expand and deepen the discussions on these, however. It was also seen that the whole discussion of biotechnology and biopiracy cannot be tackled without discussing intellectual property rights and the role of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

This recognition has pushed us in the Tebtebba Foundation [15] to organize a workshop of indigenous peoples on Article 27.3.b of the TRIPS Agreement. This was held in Geneva in 24-25 July l999, just before the 16th Session of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. This workshop came up with a statement called “No to Patenting of Life: Indigenous Peoples’ Statement on Article 27.3.b of the TRIPS Agreement”. This has been sent all over the world over the Internet and at present there are already more than 200 signatories. Almost all of the major indigenous peoples’ organizations and networks from all the continents of the world has signed up. We have been receiving very favorable responses on how this statement is being used as a reference for awareness-raising campaigns on the issue of genetic engineering and the patenting of life.

In Seattle during the 3rd Ministerial Meeting of the WTO there was a group of indigenous peoples who went to participate in the parallel activities done by NGOs. We held our own caucus and from here we came up with the “Indigenous Peoples’ Seattle Declaration”. Again this included the protest against the patenting of life. This also is going around in the Internet and like the previous statement has also a Spanish version. There were panel discussions held on the issue of biotechnology and its implications and some of us spoke about its impacts.

In addition to this a few of us have participated in the negotiations leading to the adoption of a Biosafety Protocol in the Convention on Biological Diversity. This Biosafety Protocol which was recently adopted just before the end of the last century will regulate the transboundary transfer of genetically modified organisms (GMOS). The Tebtebba Foundation has worked closely with the Third World Network (an international NGO based in Penang, Malaysia) on this issue. Many indigenous peoples in whichever part of the world are also taking part in the campaigns against genetically-modified organisms and products containing these.

On the national levels there are various efforts of indigenous peoples’ organizations to monitor the state of biopiracy taking place and also to lobby for laws which will regulate bioprospecting. In the Philippines, for instance there is an Executive Order (EO) called EO 247 which is suppose to regulate researches and bioprospecting in the local communities. This requires for a prior-informed-consent before the researchers can even set foot in the communities. There are still a lot of weaknesses in terms of how this is being implemented but it has served as a deterrent against the rush of biopirates.

Since l993, RAFI has consistently maintained “that if any global study of human diversity was to be undertaken, it must be conducted under the umbrella of an intergovernmental organization and with the full, informed consent and participation of indigenous peoples.”[16] The HGDP, however, did not welcome this proposal and refused to submit itself to UN supervision.

In spite of these protests, the Human Genome Diversity Project still continues. They are undertaking collections through different channels. In the Philippines, for instance, some professors from the University of the Philippines were given contracts to collect genetic material from indigenous peoples. My daughter, who is a molecular biology student at the University was asked by her adviser to collect genetic materials from 100 relatives from her mother’s family. She discussed this with me and we agreed that she should not accept this suggestion. We found out later that this professor, who is a molecular biologist, is doing gene collections under the auspices of the HGDP.

The UN Commission on Human Rights concludes:

The HGDP continues, despite the objections of many indigenous peoples. It is arguable that there is a developing awareness and sensitivity to the ethical and legal issues surrounding the collection of the human genome..It is possible that some of the concerns of indigenous peoples can be addressed through international and local desire to improve consultation with indigenous peoples and through changes in patent law. Some concerns of indigenous peoples, however, cannot be adequately addressed without a complete ban on projects such as the HGDP , and of the patenting of human genome.[17]


The position of indigenous peoples vis a vis biotechnology is still evolving. The common thread in the various positions is the view that life-forms should not be patented. If the ownership of patents on life-forms is the main incentive for scientists and corporations to invest in biotechnology, it might be a good idea not to allow this. The benevolent motives avowed by scientists who want to contribute to sustainable development should not be tainted by the commercialization or commodification of life.

It is also generally agreed that the harmonization of intellectual property rights regimes to fit the mold of western IPRs particularly TRIPS is morally and legally indefensible. This is being done to further legitimize the desire of industrialized countries and their transnational corporations to have monopoly control over biotechnology and information technologies. Those who have contributed their centuries-old knowledge to develop and protect the rich biodiversity in their communities will now be accused of biopiracy because the right to this knowledge is going into the hands of the corporations through IPRs.

It should be recognized that indigenous peoples have a right to their intellectual and cultural heritage; this is clearly articulated in the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other UN standards. This right is being blatantly violated by developments in biotechnology. Even the collection of genetic materials from indigenous peoples bodies through the HGDP and other similar projects is a violation of the rights and integrity of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples also agree that the protection of biodiversity and cultural diversity cannot be effectively guaranteed if their rights to their ancestral territories are not recognized and respected. Therefore, protests against biotechnology cannot be separated from the call for the recognition and respect of the rights of indigenous peoples to their territories and resources and their right to their intellectual and cultural heritage.

The UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the emerging standard which should guide states, corporations, and society in general on how to deal with indigenous peoples. It was the result of over a decade of intensive dialogues between indigenous peoples, outside experts and government delegations. It is the articulation of the collective values and aspirations of indigenous peoples from the different parts of the world. Indigenous peoples are pushing for the immediate adoption of this before the Decade of Indigenous Peoples ends in 2003.

The march of science and technology will likely proceed in spite of protests from indigenous peoples and NGOs. In the face of the aggressive recolonization of indigenous peoples territories, bodies and minds which is facilitated by the new science and technologies it is imperative to support the struggles of indigenous peoples. Whatever gains indigenous peoples will make will also be gains for the whole of humanity and nature.


1. Baumann, Miges, Janet Bell, et. al, eds.(1996) , The Life Industry, Biodiversity, people and profits, Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd., London.

2. Cavalli-Sforza, L. Luca, A. Wilson, C. Cantor, Cook-Deegan and M.C.King, (1991), “Call for a Worldwide Survey of Human Genetic Diverstiy: A Vanishing Opportunity for the Human Genome Project”, 11 Genomics 490.

3.GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International) Briefing Paper (l997), “Patenting, Piracy and Perverted Promises: Patenting life, the last assault on the commons” , GRAIN, Barcelona, l997,

4. Kidd J., K. Kidd, and K. Weiss (1991), The Human Genome Diversity Inititative, 65 Hum. Biol. 1.

5. Kimbrell, Andrew (l993), The Human Body Shop, The Engineering and Marketing of Life, Penang, Malaysia, Third World Network.

6. Mae Wan Ho (1998), Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Penang, Malaysia. Third World Network

7. RAFI Communique, September/October l997, Ottawa. RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International).

8. Report of the Second Human Genome Diversity Workshop. Penn State University, 29-31 October l992

9. Tauli-Corpuz, Victoria (1994) Statement presented during the 2nd Session of the UN-CSD on behalf of the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance, New York.

10. Tauli-Corpuz, Victoria (1996), Reclaiming Earth-based Spirituality, Indigenous Women in the Cordillera, Women Healing Earth,New York. Orbis Books.

11. UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/1998/4, “Standard Setting Activities: Evolution of Standards Concerning the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Human Genome Diversity Research and Indigenous Peoples”, Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, UN.



[1] While the official documents on the HGDP did not mention that what they are doing is for profit, I am positive that eventually some scientist or corporation will apply for patents on some of the collections. The example of a US corporation called Incyte which in April 1994 applied for a patent on 40,000 human genes and DNA fragments is a strong basis for my suspicion. The patent application of the T-cell line infected with HTLV-11 virus of the Guaymi woman in Panama by the US Department of Commerce and another application over the T-cell line infected with HTLV-1 virus of a Hagahai man in Papua New Guinea by the same agency, to me indicates that commercialization of these will be a logical next step. While these were not directly linked to the Human Genome Diversity Project, these precedents would already indicate the future of the genetic collections of the HGDP.

[2] See Mae Wan Ho (1998), Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, p.46-47.

[3] Examples of these declarations are as follows: Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples of June l993 done in Aotearoa; National Congress of American Indians (3 Dec. l993); Guaymi General Congress (l994, Panama); :Latin and South American Consultation on Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge (Bolivia, l994), Beijing Declaration of Indigenous Women (Beijing, l995), etc.

[4] See Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (1996), Reclaiming Earth-based Spirituality, Indigenous Women in the Cordillera, p.101.

[5] GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International) Briefing Paper, “Patenting, Piracy and Perverted Promises: Patenting life, the last assault on the commons” , GRAIN, Barcelona, l997, p. 5.

[6]Report of the Second Human Genome Diversity Workshop. Penn State University, 29-31 October l992

[7] See Kidd J., K. Kidd, and K. Weiss (1991), The Human Genome Diversity Inititative, 65 Hum. Biol. 1.

[8] Ibid

[9]Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Statement presented during the 2nd Session of the UN-CSD on behalf of the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance, New York, l994

[10] The information on the collection of genetic materials from the Aetas was relayed to me by my NGO friends in the Philippines. I was sent copies of the exchange of letters between Dr. Philip Camara of the Makati Medical Centre in the Philippines and Elizabeth Trachtenberg of Roche Molecular Systems. The exchange of letters took place between March 1993 to July l994. A fuller account of this exchange can be seen in the book “The Life Industry: Biodiversity, people, and profits”(1996).

[11] Cavalli-Sforza, L. Luca, A. Wilson, C. Cantor, Cook-Deegan and M.C.King, (199!), “Call for a Worldwide Survey of Human Genetic Diverstiy: A Vanishing Opportunity for the Human Genome Project”

[12] See Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, The Engineering and Marketing of Life, p.46

[13] See Miges Baumann, et. al, eds., The Life Industry, Biodiversity, people and profits , p.137

[14] UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/1998/4, “Standard Setting Activities: Evolution of Standards Concerning the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Human Genome Diversity Research and Indigenous Peoples”, Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, p.4

[15] Tebtebba Foundation (Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education) is an indigenous peoples’ NGO whose objective is to help build the capacity of indigenous peoples to fight for their own issues. It does research work, lobbying and advocacy in the national and international arenas, holds training workshops and comes up with publications.

[16]RAFI Communique, September/October l997, Ottawa

[17] Ibid, UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/l998/4, p.11

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