ISSN 2330-717X

Indigenous Peoples: Vanguards Of World’s Biodiversity – OpEd


The United Nations has set August 9 as the International Day of Indigenous Peoples (IP) but to most IPs worldwide, it is just another day of facing complex threats to their survival as distinct peoples.

Not only are they confronted with dispossession of their lands and physical persecution, they are also faced with appropriation of natural resources and their collective knowledge of this, which they developed through the ages.

Their traditional knowledge of food crops, medicinal plants and survival are being taken by multinational companies and commercialized.

IP Knowledge on Agricultural Biodiversity

In the early 80s, agricultural scientists from UNFAO discovered that Azolla, an algae, could fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and help fertilize rice crops. Armed with this know-how, they traveled to Mountain Province of the Cordillera region of the Philippines intending to introduce the technology.

To their surprise, they found out that farmers in that province have, for hundreds of years, been integrating Azolla in their rice paddies because through ancient observation, realized their rice crops grew better when grown with Azolla.

Many beneficial farming practices exist today that have emerged from indigenous peoples—terrace farming, agroforestry, organic gardening principles to name a few.

Many food crops as well exist today because they owe their genetic continuity to indigenous peoples. The Convention of Biodiversity (CBD) says the systematic collection of indigenous peoples’ agricultural genetic diversity contributed considerable economic benefits to the world.

Genes from crops grown by indigenous peoples for only 15 crops contribute more than 50 million dollars annually in US alone.

About 60 per cent of the germplasm collected in genebanks of members of the International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs) worldwide came from crops nurtured by indigenous peoples for centuries, CBD said.

These include thousands of varieties of rice, corn, wheat, potato, beans and root crops.

Intellectual Property Rights Regimes Threatening IPs’ Biodiversity

The toil of indigenous and tribal peoples in domesticating, breeding and conserving biodiversity over the centuries is being endangered by the demand of bioprospecting corporations to apply Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regimes.

IPR regimes are rights to ideas and information which are used in new inventions or processes. These rights enable the holder to exclude other users from using or marketing such process or invention. In short, IPRs is therefore monopoly over commercial exploitation.

The existing IPR regimes today fail to recognize the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples to their own knowledge and innovation.

In my book Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Asia, I argued that multinationals from the industrial world exploit indigenous peoples biological wealth and then sell the patented products back to them at excessive prices.

The growth of biotechnology industries, combined with the loss of biodiversity worldwide, has focused the attention of governments, corporations, and others on access to and control of genetic resources—mainly because of the tremendous potential for generating commercial profits, I wrote.

The food crops, medicinal plants, other biogenetic resources as well as traditional knowledge on these, have become commodities, to be bought, sold and traded, I added.

Commodifying the World’s Most Consumed Crop- Rice

In 2008, I was speaker at International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) scientific congress, and brought to tour its high-tech underground gene bank that could withstand earthquakes, floods, bombs and fire for the purpose of protecting thousands of rice varieties of seeds and ensure that these be grown by future generations.

The seedbank, holds all the world’s rice, many of which are indigenous varieties that now have disappeared in farmers’ fields.

IRRI scientists briefed me, the seedbank intends to prevent monopoly commercial plant breeding in the hands of a few transnational companies that now control significant gene banks.

But such claim is misleading because today, the value of IRRI’s contribution to the rice production of developed countries runs to millions of US dollars every year, based on the production of US semi-dwarf rice crop developed on the basis of IRRI material, some traits of which came from rice, originally grown by indigenous peoples.

Thousands of indigenous rice varieties in Asia and Africa have been lost through the years as genetically-tinkered rice, many developed by IRRI and input-dependent, have replaced these.

As a rule, rice farmers save some of their crops to use as seed the following year. But with many IPR regimes controlling rice now, farmers would have to pay royalties on the rice seeds from patented seeds and even where farmers were the source of original stocks, they would not be allowed to use or market them under GATT rules.

As it is now, 70 percent of developing countries rice varieties are from IRRI. This means the rice seeds are not in farmers’ fields and control. As such, it also places farmers at the mercy of inorganic fertilizer and pesticide multinational companies because it is an established fact that IRRI varieties don’t grow and produce well without these expensive inputs.

Pharmaceutical Biodiversity

According to the Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI), eighty percent of the world’s population is dependent on traditional medicine and medicinal plants for their health security.

The conservation of many of these pharmaceutical biodiversity lies in the hands of indigenous peoples, RAFI said.

Two thirds of the world’s plant species—35,000 of which have medicinal values, have in one time or another, used by indigenous peoples in developing countries, RAFI added

But it lamented so many of these plants, communal properties, now are controlled by the pharmaceutical industry that earn millions of dollars annually through drug development, much of the raw materials of which are exported by Third World countries to developed nations.

The US National Cancer Institute alone collected 23,000 plant samples from 7,000 plant species in Southeast Asia from 1980 to 1995.

Already, about 7,000 medical compounds that make up the Western pharmacopeia came from plants associate with indigenous peoples using these as medicine, RAFI said.

Indigenous Peoples Struggle Against Biopiracy

The extraction of biodiversity resources to supply resources for the biotechnology industry is alarming many indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples’ organizations say this threatens indigenous peoples access to and control of their collective property and their collective knowledge of the traditional uses of exotic and endemic plants which they have been using as food and medicine for centuries.

On the global level, international NGOs such as RAFI, GRAIN and the Third World Network have been joining local NGOs to raise awareness of the biopiracy problem.

They are keeping watch over patent applications in various patent and trademark offices worldwide.

In 1995, they with 200 organizations worldwide from 35 countries petitioned the US Trademark Office to revoke a patent given to W.R.Grace Company to use a pesticidal extract from neem, an endemic tree of India. The petitioners said the company was usurping age-old biological processes of India’s indigenous peoples.

On February 1995 Asian indigenous peoples organizations protested to the European Union and UN against all forms of genetic manipulation and destruction and criticized Western efforts 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”.

Indigenous peoples representatives also figured prominently in negotiating for the adoption of a Biosafety Protocol in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Adopted in 2000, the Biosafety Protocol “regulates the transbounsboundary transfer of genetically modified organism across national borders”.

The struggle by indigenous peoples to protect their biodiversity resources remains relevant. On the other hand, some are too focused on the international arena that they do not feel the impact to what is happening on the ground.

It is time to rethink this position.

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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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