Trouble in Mexico

Mayans may lose traditional knowledge to a Us-funded project

Published: Saturday 15 January 2000

despite demands by 11 indigenous peoples' organisations to suspend the us $2.5 million us government-funded bioprospecting programme, the University of Georgia has refused to wind up its activities in Chiapas, Mexico. The objective of the five-year project is to study thousands of plants and microorganisms used for medicinal purposes by the Mayan communities.

Collectively known as the Council of Indigenous Traditional Midwives and Healers of Chiapas ( citmhc ), the 11 Mayan organisations have denounced the project and are asking the local people to refuse to cooperate with the researchers.

The project is led by the University of Georgia in cooperation with El Colegio de la Frontera Sur ( ecosur ), a Mexican research centre, and Molecular Nature Ltd, a biotech company based in Wales, United Kingdom.

Entitled "Drug discovery and biodiversity among the Maya of Mexico", the project is being funded by the us government's International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups ( icbg ), a consortium of us federal agencies that gives grants to public and commercial research institutions that conduct 'bioprospecting' programmes in the South.

The tropical mountains of Chiapas are one of the richest repositories of plant and animal biodiversity in the world. Over the centuries, the Mayans have developed a rich medical knowledge. An estimated 6,000 plant species thrive in the area, thousands of them used by the Maya to treat illnesses.

All promising biological samples will be screened for treatment against cancer, diseases associated with hiv/ aids ; central nervous system, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal, respiratory/pulmonary and skin diseases and for contraception. Under the project, a comprehensive botanical survey of the Central Chiapas Highlands will also be undertaken along with sustainable harvesting and production of selected species indicating high potential for economic development.

It has been estimated that approximately 2,000 unique compounds will be identified by the end of the project. The compounds will be chemically profiled by Molecular Nature Ltd and a duplicate set of plants will be deposited at the University of Georgia's herbarium in Athens, Georgia.

All this has outraged the indigenous people. They contend that their knowledge will be used for the sole purpose of producing pharmaceutical products while the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for thousands of years will share no benefits. The privatisation of their knowledge that may follow in the form of patents is totally alien to their culture. The project also has the potential to create conflicts within the community as some individuals will collaborate with researchers in return for a petty payments or tools.

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