by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 24 Feb 2000 -- In the Amazon jungles between Brazil and Guyana, the long-separated chiefs of the Wapishana indigenous community are to gather soon. Their aim - to challenge patents which have usurped their ancestral knowledge and practice.

For now, they have banned visits by just anyone masquerading as a "researcher" to their villages.

The patents, of considerable monetary value to the pharmaceutical industry, have been registered in the United States and Europe.

The Wapishana community is furious with a British chemist, Conrad Gorinsky, in whom they confided some of their ancestral secrets of plants with healing powers. Now, they are convinced Gorinsky has betrayed them.

According to Dr. Julio Cesar Centeno, who teaches at the Graduate School of Forestry in the University of Andes at Merida in Venezuela, the Wapishana chiefs will be meeting next month to devise a response strategy to the case of biopiracy they have been subjected to.

"Dozens of such cases have been reported in the last five years alone, with accelerating frequency," says Dr. Centeno, a well-known forestry expert. "It is a process that seems to herald a major confrontation between developing and industrial countries for the pharmaceutical and medicinal wealth of tropical forests."

Details of the Wapishana case have just been released by Dr. Centeno to the forestry, environmental and indigenous groups networks.

About a 100 years ago, the British and the Portuguese arbitrarily split what was left of the Wapishana community into two subgroups. Today, their numbers has reduced to barely 15,000. About 6.000 live in Brazil and speak Portuguese. The rest live in Guyana, and speak English.

Common cause of retrieving the ownership rights to their stolen traditional knowledge will bring the two separated populations together - breaking the relative isolation that has divided them for years. And they will be using their own language to communicate amongst themselves.

The Wapishana chiefs will gather to find a way to challenge patents registered by Gorinsky in the United States and Europe, on products isolated from Tipir, the nut of the Greenheart tree (Chlorocardium rodiei), and Cunani (Clibadium sylvestre), a bush plant used by the Wapishana and other Amazon groups since ancient times.

Tipir is grated by the Wapishana to stop haemorrhages and prevent infections. It is also effectively used as a contraceptive. Or to provoke abortions. Its use is intricately related to ancestral practices. Only the spirits of the dead are said to tame its power. When unleashed without control, the power of Tipir can kill.

The plant Cunani, on the other hand, is used to fish. No nets, no fishing lines, nor any need of traps. The leaves are easily macerated and shaped into a small disk. The disk is thrown into the water. After a little while, the fish start jumping out of the water, like crazy, and die.

While the fish can be eaten immediately with all its taste intact and no side effects on humans, the water is not polluted either. Fish can thrive in the same place where Cunani was used only hours earlier.

Eugene Andrew, the chief of Sand Creek, a small community in the Guyanese Amazon, argues that Gorinsky would not have been able to isolate the active components of the Cunani plan without the help of the people of the village.

Chief Eugene Andrew believes Gorinsky stole the knowledge of their ancestors and their elders, to sell it to pharmaceutical industries. He feels the Wapishana were betrayed, and that they have a right to ask for justice.

Gorinsky was a guest of the Wapishana on many occasions. They received and accepted him with generosity. They gave him housing, food, and friendships. They served as his guide, from sun-up to sun-down, for days on end.

They told him what they knew about Cunani, Tipir and other plants. They showed him how they were used, how their powers could be harnessed to help people and do good.

According to Gorinsky's description, the active ingredient in Tipir is an antipyretic that prevents the return of Malaria, and can be used to treat tumours. He named it "rupunine", from the name of the Rupununi river nearby.

Gorinsky also registered active ingredients derived from Cunani, polyacetilenes that serve as powerful stimulants to the nervous system, or as neuromuscular agents that can prevent heart blockades.

The Wapishana are determined to get their knowledge back.

They are encouraged by the outcome of a similar case with the patent of the Amazon sacred plant Ayahuasca, revoked by the United States Patent Office in November of 1999, after litigation by COICA, the coordinating office of the Indigenous People of the Amazon territory.

The Convention on Biological Diversity establishes that, when commercial products are derived from traditional knowledge, part of the royalties must be reserved for the people from which that knowledge came from.

The United States, however, is not a signatory to the Biodiversity Convention, and therefore not bound by its mandate.

Legal action, at least in the beginning, may need to take place in Europe, contends Dr. Centeno, though he adds that the Ayahuasca case, however, does open the door to challenge Gorinsky's US patent as well.

For the Wapishana people, it is not just a case of misappropriation of their age-old knowledge. Their troubles run deeper. They see it as a betrayal of their own people. And, they are also fearful of arousing the wrath of their ancestors.

Chief Eugene Andrew has found it painful but necessary to limit the Wapishana's ancient tradition of hospitality, for the first time since his memory recalls. For the time being, no "researcher" is allowed in Sand Creek.

The Wapishana are experiencing what many other indigenous groups and local societies are suffering with alarming frequency throughout the tropics: the appropriation of traditional knowledge by pirates passing for scientists, researchers, missionaries, environmentalists, activists of indigenous people's rights, and other disguises.

The scenario of confrontation, says Dr. Centeno, can be turned into a partnership for mutual benefit. "But that would require that international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) be fair in their rules. For instance, the TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement must be able to guarantee as much ownership rights to the simple indigenous peoples for their ancestral knowledge as it strives to protect the rights of very powerful multinational pharmaceutical giants for their innovations based on traditional knowledge."

The Wapishana Indians (as distinct from Indians of the Indian sub-continent! - thanks to the confusion created by Christopher Columbus whose voyage of discovery was meant to reach India when he actually set foot on the American continent) are up against the formidable forces of globalization.

Their experience with challenging patents in the United States and Europe would probably serve as a guide to millions of other indigenous peoples and traditional cultures which continue to provide a valuable storehouse of knowledge that is silently plundered but rarely rewarded. (SUNS4614)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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