Bio-Piracy in Chiapas

Bio-Piracy in Chiapas

Mexico's Zapatista community is protesting the commercial exploitation of the country's ecological riches.


This past March, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) made history with a march on Mexico City from its jungle stronghold in the poor southern state of Chiapas, demanding acceptance of its peace plan, the San Andrés Accords [see Al Giordano, "Zapatistas on the March," April 9]. But within six weeks, the accords–constitutional amendments recognizing the autonomy of Mexico's indigenous peoples–were gutted by federal legislators, causing the rebels once again to break off dialogue. At the heart of the debate over the plan is the question of who will control the fate of the Chiapas rainforest, the Selva Lacandona–where real indigenous autonomy has been in place ever since the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

The UN-recognized Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve holds the Selva's last, threatened heart of virgin forest. Despite President Vicente Fox's pledges to withdraw troops from Zapatista territory, many military positions remain in the Selva. Barred by the cease-fire from attacking the Zapatistas, the troops are ostensibly policing Montes Azules against drug traffickers and protecting it from deforestation. But the Selva's Maya inhabitants, the Zapatista base communities, say that–in defiance of both UN guidelines and the San Andrés principles–Montes Azules is not being protected for the resident indigenous peoples but for transnational biotech corporations that hope to profit from the region's genetic wealth.

In 1998 the California firm Diversa signed a three-year "bio-prospecting" deal with the Mexican government. Diversa, which has a similar deal with the US government for Yellowstone National Park, is granted access to Mexico's biodiversity in exchange for $5,000 to train and equip personnel from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who are to collect the samples; $50 per sample; and royalties of between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of net sales on products derived from them. In contrast, Yellowstone National Park got $15,000 of equipment, royalties of from 0.5 to 10 percent–and $100,000.

The terms of both deals had been secret. Environmental groups went to US federal court to try to get the Yellowstone terms released–but they were eventually reported in the Salt Lake Tribune. The terms of the Mexican deal were leaked to the daily La Jornada, which lambasted them as "bio-genetic plunder."

The University of Georgia, the Britain-based company Molecular Nature Ltd. and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur have launched a similar five-year project. This one, titled Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of Mexico, specifically targets Chiapas. Tapping the vast reservoir of Maya herblore, the program will receive $2.5 million from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), a consortium of US government agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture. The Chiapas Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and Healers (COMPITCH) is urging Indians not to cooperate with the researchers, charging that "the pact was developed without notifying or informing indigenous communities and organizations." The US program has developed its own partnership with local Indian communities, called ICBG-Maya. Director Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia told the Associated Press that the project has received the consent of nearly fifty communities and forged profit-sharing deals with them. But Berlin said he warned them that financial windfalls were a long shot.

Since 1993 the ICBG has awarded eleven bio-prospecting grants totaling $18.5 million worldwide. Commercial partners include GlaxoSmithKline, Dow Agroscience, American Cyanamid (recently acquired by BASF) and, until recently, Monsanto Searle. The revenues at stake contrast sharply with the agonizing poverty of Chiapas villages. A unique geyser-dwelling microbe collected from Yellowstone in 1966 was the source for enzymes widely used in DNA research and sold to Hoffman-LaRoche for $300 million. Rather than bring wealth to impoverished villages, new patents may impose economic burdens by requiring farmers to pay royalties to foreign corporations to grow their own indigenous maize. The Mexican government has expressed concern over DuPont's recent patenting of all corn varieties with certain oleic acid levels, including many originating in Mexico.

Beth Burrows of the Seattle-area-based Edmonds Institute, one of the litigants in the Yellowstone case, is still waiting for a court-ordered impact study on the bio-prospecting program there. Says Burrows: "To privatize living organisms, whether it is Mexican maize or Yellowstone microbes, may serve corporate interests, but it does not serve our social contract or our duties to steward the land and support farmers. Farmers all over the world save seeds and trade them with neighbors. But Monsanto has taken farmers to court for violating their property rights. Farmers have to go to the corporations like to masters on the manor."

This system is now supported by the "trade-related intellectual property rights" provisions–or TRIPs–of NAFTA and the WTO, instating international recognition of patents on life. In contrast, the United States still resists ratifying the Biodiversity Treaty, unveiled at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which would recognize indigenous peoples' intellectual property rights. Adds Burrows: "We're creating a social disruption which I'm not sure people are seeing."

Some people are seeing it. In April representatives from more than 100 Chiapas Indian communities held a Maize Meeting in the highlands city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, vowing not to plant bio-tweaked corn. In mid-June COMPITCH held an international anti-bio-piracy Forum for Biological and Cultural Diversity, in San Cristóbal. And on June 24, when the Biotechnology Industry Organization met in San Diego, Diversa's hometown, activists held their own "BioJustice" counterconvention.

The San Andrés Accords would create a formidable obstacle to corporate designs on Mexico's Indian lands: uncooperative Indian communities with greater control over their turf. Which is why peace is likely to remain illusory in southern Mexico as long as the government remains beholden to corporate globalization. But the issues raised by the Zapatista autonomy demands have implications for indigenous peoples, farmers and environmentalists worldwide.

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