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When Plants Become Medicine: Biopiracy, Bioprospecting and Questions of Consent


The problem may be that money does grow on trees. Globalization has allowed for cross-cultural interactions that can turn common knowledge from one group into discovery for another. In medicine this exchange has led outside practitioners and researchers (often from high resource countries) to explore other medical traditions for cures to diseases that have evaded their own methods. A lingering question attached to this global network is whether the rights of indigenous peoples are being protected as access to their knowledge systems is more easily penetrable, and whether intellectual property rights (IPR) have been used to exploit traditional knowledge based systems. These questions are particularly ingrained in today’s field of bioprospecting, or “exploring biological diversity for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources” (1). A term often synonymous with bioprospecting is “biopiracy”, which has been used by victims of bioprospecting who are not compensated by or protected from foreigners using their traditional knowledge of bioresources (2).

As more pharmaceutical companies and government-funded programs explore biodiversity-rich countries, such as India and Mexico, that also include culturally diverse indigenous populations, conflict arises. These issues are not limited to the specific qualities of plants and animals, but also of consent, environmental sustainability, and protection of the practitioners’ intellectual property.  We explore the developments and controversy of bioprospecting in India and Mexico to provide a framework for this ethical dilemma.


The relationship between India and bioprospecting is sensitive, as the country has seen itself as the victim of exploitation of its own biodiversity and traditional knowledge base. One example of these ‘exploitations’ includes the patenting of methods to extract specific chemicals from neem. These extractions were found to act as a pesticide and also hold bacteria-fighting qualities (3). Many indigenous communities in India felt it unfair to grant this patent, as they have been using neem to remedy such problems long beforehand. The patent was challenged, but because the “patent-holder had improved on existing knowledge,” the decision could not be overturned. The Indian government brought to light a similar controversy when the US patent office approved a patent in 1995 for the wound-healing qualities found in turmeric (2). The patent was once again challenged, as the plant has been traditionally used in Indian communities to heal wounds and rashes (4). This time the patent was indeed overturned, showing the complexity of intellectual property rights.

Many indigenous communities in India argue that knowledge pertaining to specific herbal usage has been practiced by traditional healing practices including Ayurveda, but because it is so old a practice, it is not formally written down nor is it systematically used, and therefore cannot be legitimately be patented. This has left the bioprospecting field wide open for other companies and researchers to swoop in and use this knowledge base for scientific discoveries.

India has gone through great lengths since these cases by taking ownership of and calling for acknowledgement of traditional knowledge based-systems. India created domestic laws to help foreign bioprospectors determine the traditional knowledge of bioresources. For example, in 2000 the Biological Diversity Bill was passed, in which the use of traditional knowledge-based bioresources must in some way accredit the indigenous people holding that information via some form of a benefit-sharing model (2).  In an effort to avoid further patent controversies, India went even further and created its own Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. The goal of this database was to provide upfront information regarding traditional healthcare practice and medicinal uses, so as to avoid illegitimate patents in foreign countries (4). Yet even if it is deemed ethical and appropriate to compensate an indigenous people for their traditional knowledge resources, how can this be achieved?

Examples in India of benefit-sharing models and propositions include a monetary-based platform, in which a community is repaid for exporting and utilizing plants of medicinal value. In certain contexts, benefit sharing has shown to aid rural or disadvantaged communities in India, such as the ‘community-bioprospecting’ model in South India. Here, a community-based company acted as a mediator between bioprospectors and community needs to guide monetary benefit-sharing plans and utilize local ethnomedicine knowledge that promote both the spread of traditional and valued knowledge as well as improving the quality of life of disadvantaged communities (1).

While success in one cultural setting is a stepping stone forward in this murky river of conflict, constructing a viable bioprospecting revenue sharing model is extremely challenging to apply in different places. Multiple U.S. agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF) U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) collaborated to create the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) (5). The program’s mission was to:

“address the interdependence of biodiversity exploration for potential applications in health, with investments in research capacity that support sustainable use of these resources, the knowledge to conserve them, and equitable partnership frameworks among research organizations in the U.S. and low- and middle-income-countries (LMICs).”

In Mexico a joint project including the University of Georgia, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas Chiapas, Mexico, the Mexican Institute of Social Security and a private firm Molecular Nature Ltd of the U.K. won a grant from the ICBG to create a framework for the bioprospecting process while also protecting and compensating the intellectual property of traditional Mayan practitioners in the region of Chiapas. Advocacy for the Mayan communities was to come out of the Protection of Mayan Intellectual Property Rights (PROMAYA). One aspect of this was to create a trust fund for Mayan communities that would be funded by any royalties on drugs resulting from the ICBG project, as well as ensure increased infrastructure building for research. Despite the similar effort as in India to compensate locals and acknowledge their knowledge, this arrangement was immediately opposed by local groups as well as allied international NGO’s, calling into the question the process of consent (5). At the center of this controversy was PROMAYA and anthropologists Elois Ann Berlin and Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia. The Berlins brought extensive knowledge of the area and maintain that they had done significant work to ensure that communication with local communicates was adequate and appropriate. However, recent controversies in other bioprospecting projects and a lack of an easily determined representative voice for the communities led to rapid public outcry. Despite modifications to the grant, the project was ultimately terminated under the pressure from these protests when ECOSUR withdrew from the project. The Berlins’ full perspective on the rise and fall of the project was published in 2004 (7). It should be noted that not all ICBG projects had such a negative result. In a 2013 Current Anthropology piece Rosenthal compares the relative success of the ICBG in Peru to the tumultuous ending in Mexico (6). “The Peru and Maya ICBGs have struggled very publicly with the definition and implementation of prior informed consent in attempts to build equitable and ethical research collaborations. An analysis of the contrasting political, cultural, and governance environments and the differential outcomes of the two projects suggests that the governance of potentially collaborating indigenous societies is key.”

In an increasingly global world, one must question whether healing-practice knowledge can be in fact ‘owned’ by a community, and if so, how this may impede the spread of crucial and vital knowledge surrounding the use of bioresources as medicine. This area requires a multidisciplinary approach, as bioprospecting involves a complex interplay between governments, academic researchers, the pharmaceutical industry and the often disadvantaged communities that hold the precious knowledge of bioresources. Furthermore, each of these groups is comprised of multiple sub-groups with varied perspectives and motivations. Larger governing bodies such as the U.N., and its Convention on Biological Diversity, which strives to promote among other issues surrounding biodiversity, equal rights for indigenous peoples in respect to benefit-sharing also play a role in setting global standards for how the world should view ownership and protection of bioresources and indigenous peoples, respectively.8 “The Peru and Maya ICBGs have struggled very publicly with the definition and implementation of prior informed consent in attempts to build equitable and ethical research collaborations. An analysis of the contrasting political, cultural, and governance environments and the differential outcomes of the two projects suggests that the governance of potentially collaborating indigenous societies is key.”

Overall, the field of global health must look into how multiple facets in the global world, ranging from the international governments to community-based bioprospecting models, have responded to bioprospecting and biopiracy. We must question whether current perspectives of the topic are accurately dealing with a very real problem of infringing on a community’s bioresources and traditional knowledge. One of the problems bioprospecting faces today is the dilemma over how to protect indigenous peoples’ rights and who can speak as a reasonable representative of these populations. We now have the difficult task of treating bioprospecting both as a medium through which cultural practices are shared in light of the broadening global health field, while also regarding its detrimental qualities in further perpetuating social suffering of local communities whose traditional knowledge base may be exploited.

@eddiebriercheck co-authored this piece.

1.) Torri, Maria-Costanza. “Beyond Benefit-sharing Agreements: Bioprospecting for the Poor?” International Journal of Technology Management and Sustainable Development 8.2 (2009): 103-27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 May 2010.

2.) Kartal, Murat. “Intellectual Property Protection in the Natural Product Drug Discovery, Traditional Herbal Medicine and Herbal Medicinal Products.” John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. (2006): 113-19. PubMed. Web. 1 May 2010.

3.) Shimbo, Itsuki, Yoko Ito, and Koichi Sumikura. “Patent Protection and Access to Genetic Resources.” Nature Biotechnology 26.6 (2008): 645-47. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 May 2010.

4.) India. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. Web. 05 May 2010.

5.) NIH Fogarty International Center. International Biodiversity Cooperative Groups

6.) Rosenthal J. Politics, Culture, and Governance in the Development of Prior Informed Consent in Indigenous Communities. Current Anthropology Feb 2006.

7.) Berlin, B and Berlin E.A. Community Autonomy and the Mayan ICBG Project in Chiapas, Mexico: How a Bioprospective Project that Should Have Succeeded Failed. Human Organization, Winter 2004.

8.) “Article 8(j): Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices.” Convention on Biological Diversity. U.N., 05 May 2010. Web. 05 May 2010. <;.

One comment on “When Plants Become Medicine: Biopiracy, Bioprospecting and Questions of Consent

  1. Excellent discussion of the topic, y’all. The question of how to distribute benefits from the commercialization of shared knowledge is a truly difficult one, and links to other imbalances that invariably arise whenever entities from high income settings are using low resource settings for intellectual property matters (similar concerns for example with clinical drug trials in LMIC).

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