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Winner of the 2003 Diana Forsythe Prize, American Anthropological Association
Bioprospecting--the exchange of plants for corporate promises of royalties or community development assistance--has been lauded as a way to develop new medicines while offering southern nations and indigenous communities an incentive to preserve their rich biodiversity. But can pharmaceutical profits really advance conservation and indigenous rights? How much should companies pay and to whom? Who stands to gain and lose? The first anthropological study of the practices mobilized in the name and in the shadow of bioprospecting, this book takes us into the unexpected sites where Mexican scientists and American companies venture looking for medicinal plants and local knowledge.
Cori Hayden tracks bioprospecting's contentious new promise--and the contradictory activities generated in its name. Focusing on a contract involving Mexico's National Autonomous University, Hayden examines the practices through which researchers, plant vendors, rural collectors, indigenous cooperatives, and other actors put prospecting to work. By paying unique attention to scientific research, she provides a key to understanding which people and plants are included in the promise of "selling biodiversity to save it"--and which are not. And she considers the consequences of linking scientific research and rural "enfranchisement" to the logics of intellectual property.
Roving across UN protocols, botanical collecting histories, Mexican nationalist agendas, neoliberal property regimes, and North-South relations, When Nature Goes Public charts the myriad, emergent publics that drive and contest the global market in biodiversity and its futures.
This book is an investigation of the ambivalent promise of bioprospecting-a distinctly late-twentieth-century practice that stands at the very center of contemporary contests over indigenous rights, corporate accountabilities, and ethical scientific research. Bioprospecting is the new name for an old practice: it refers to corporate drug development based on medicinal plants, traditional knowledge, and microbes culled from the "biodiversity-rich" regions of the globe-most of which reside in the so-called developing nations. The novelty lies in some distinctive parameters, which we might tentatively call "ethical," that have been placed around these longstanding practices of resource acquisition. On the strength of a succession of related, ongoing events and mobilizations in the 1980s and early 1990s-among them, indigenous rights movements, some transformative shifts in academic research protocols, and sustainable development/biodiversity conservation strategies-such "takings" now come with a mandate to "give back." Drug and biotechnology companies are thus under a fragile obligation to ensure that wealth they create based on biodiversity and traditional knowledge in turn generates some form of "equitable returns" for the source nations and communities who provided them with lucrative leads in the first place.
The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been particularly influential in reshaping the global topographies of rights and obligations that mark this contentious terrain of appropriation and exploration. The CBD, drafted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a living and much-contested document, particularly with regard to one of its most distinctive mandates: the requirement that companies compensate or otherwise share benefits with source nations, as a condition for their continued access to "Southern" biological resources. It is a vulnerable mandate in more ways than one, as we shall see throughout this account. But, however provisionally, the CBD has produced both an idiom of expectation and an institutional framework that together have had some notable effects on the south-north traffic in biological resources. While pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies have long made use of biological material from plants, animals, and microbes found in the biodiversity-rich Southern Hemisphere, they now do so under a new multilateral expectation-backed up by an increasing number of national laws in signatory nations and, not insignificantly, the watchful eyes of international and national activist groups-to turn a one-way process of extraction into a multidirectional form of exchange.
Not surprisingly, this incitement to share generates as many questions as it is meant to resolve. How much, and in what currency (royalties, technology transfer, scientific training, community development projects?) should corporations pay for access to southern plants and local or traditional knowledge about their uses? To whom, precisely, should benefits be directed, and on what basis? Who stands to gain from these exchanges, and who will lose? As these questions indicate, it would be an understatement to call prospecting a controversial issue. It is deeply po-lemicized terrain, in every way. The politics and practice of prospecting are being battled out in sustainable development treatises and policy platforms, in indigenous working groups within the UN and on activist web-sites, and in world intellectual-property tribunals. But these debates are also taking material shape in, around, and through the myriad benefit-sharing prospecting enterprises that have been put into play across the globe since the early 1990s. These agreements take a range of forms, from large, multi-institutional collaborations to simple bilateral contracts; from agreements that seek to bring indigenous communities into the fold to those that collect exclusively in government-controlled lands and channel benefits back to national biodiversity institutes.
When Nature Goes Public is an ethnography of a prospecting agreement between the United States and Mexico, and of the complicated and contradictory practices mobilized in its name. The agreement on which I focus links a team of plant researchers at Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) to the University of Arizona and its industrial partners in the United States. As members of a larger collaboration funded by the U.S. government's International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) program, UNAM researchers send extracts of Mexican medicinal plants to the pharmaceutical company Wyeth-Ayerst. In ex- change they receive, from Arizona, minimal research funds and promises of a percentage of royalties, ten to twenty years in the future, should those companies develop a drug or pesticide based on Mexican specimens. Crucially, this project is also designed to collect ethnobotanical knowledge about plant uses, and to direct some of the royalties back to the people or communities from which this intellectual resource is culled.1 The unexpectedly generative effects of this promise of redistributed value lie at the heart of this ethnography. This generativity will not, I should reveal from the outset, be found in the emergence of a blockbuster drug and a stream of royalties to indigenous benefit-recipients: to date, no product has even made it into the pipeline, and key participants concur that a drug is indeed among the least likely results of this collaboration to pan out. There are, however, reasons to keep reading. As we shall see, the promise and threat of prospecting and its redistributive potential have sparked some curious and circuitous webs of possibility, connection, and truncation.
The Promise and Threat of Bioprospecting
Some of the earliest and highest profile benefit-sharing enterprises-such as those instituted by Shaman Pharmaceuticals, the now-defunct San Francisco based company2; the ongoing, U.S. Government ICBG initiative (of which the U.S.-Mexico contract we will read about here is a part); or a 1991 agreement between the drug company Merck and Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio)3-have trumpeted some fairly lofty goals. The promise is no less than one of harnessing the (earning) power of corporate drug discovery and feeding these profits back into biodiversity conservation, rural and indigenous community development, and scientific infrastructure-building in developing nations. They have in short promised not just benefit sharing, but the world, or at least that kind of world "brought to you by Merck" on National Public Radio in the United States: more drugs, more health, more biodiversity, more funds for cash-poor developing nations, and more economic resources to communities who are the traditional stewards of biodiversity.
Against this heady set of promises, critics of bioprospecting in Mexico and internationally argue that these contracts hardly hold the promise to reverse the (neo)colonialist histories of resource extraction on which northern nations and corporations have built profits, empires, and nations. To the contrary, these exchanges seem to many skeptics like a dressed-up version of the same old "biopiracy" (see Shiva 1993; Kloppenburg 1991; Harry 2001). In protest against one recent project in Chiapas, Mexico, an indigenous representative from one of the affected communities argued, "[this] project is a robbery of traditional indigenous knowledge and resources, with the sole purpose of producing pharmaceuticals that will not benefit the communities that have managed and nurtured these resources for thousands of years... [It] returns almost nothing in exchange."4 Certainly, one of the central paradoxes of these agreements is that benefit-sharing provisions, offered by their proponents as a form of redistribution of wealth and technology, or even as an ethical act, only make more explicit the historically entrenched gaps in power of the actors involved. Royalties, in the amount deemed acceptable to participating companies (usually in the range of 1 to 10 percent) are not up to the task of mediating the complex histories and futures of inequality into which prospecting interjects, and in which it is deeply implicated. Instead, these promises merely seem to amplify-broadcast, but also exacerbate-those inequalities. As such, bioprospecting lays bare some of the defining contradictions of contemporary neoliberalism and its successor projects: the promises of a millennial capitalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000), crosscut by the powerful sense, in Latin America as elsewhere, that such offers of market-mediated inclusion or enfranchisement also contain within them the conditions for unprecedented degrees of exclusion and stratification.
Nowhere has this double vision-prospecting as a promise/threat-been made more vivid than in Mexico in recent years. Starting in late 1998, Mexico became home to some remarkably effective activist campaigns (local, national, and international) against several prospecting collaborations taking place within and across the borders of the Republic. Strikingly, the project on which I focus in this book has managed to avoid most of the controversy (I will discuss this in later chapters). But the controversies surrounding a sibling project, the now-defunct Maya ICBG in Chiapas-a U.S. government-sponsored initiative to use "Mayan" traditional knowledge and remedies as leads for biotechnology research in exchange for promises of future community development funds-have placed Mexico at the center of an international firestorm around the ethics and practice of bioprospecting, particularly where indigenous knowledge and communities are concerned.
As I'll discuss at greater length in chapter 3, the mobilizations against the Maya ICBG by Mexican intellectuals and activists, a group of traditional healers and midwives in Chiapas, and international organizations such as RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International, now the Erosion, Technology, Concentration group [ETC]), have pointedly questioned the legitimacy of Mexican public universities and research institutes acting as "brokers" for both national and indigenous resources. In the absence of any definitive national legislation (a law on the matter has been under discussion in the Mexican legislature since 1997), they ask, Who has the right to sell such access to U.S. and European researchers and companies; and more pointedly, Is it possible at all for these agreements to transpire in a fair and equitable manner? The protests surrounding this contract have effectively and officially put a halt to the Maya ICBG project. The demise of the Maya ICBG (along with associated mobilizations against several other collaborations) has placed into question the viability of all current prospecting projects in Mexico, including the Latin America ICBG on which this ethnography focuses.
The future of benefit-sharing contracts in Mexico now looks tentative, at best-a remarkably different situation than the one I found when I began my research in 1996. At that point, bioprospecting barely registered on Mexican activists' radar, though a few agreements, including the one documented here, were certainly up and running and hardly hidden from public view. The subtitle of this book, in its reference to the making and unmaking of bioprospecting, refers in part to this very real sense of a rise and fall in the fortunes of these kinds of collaborations in Mexico, as well as internationally.
This book is an account of bioprospecting "in the making" in a literal sense: the Latin America ICBG, on which this analysis focuses, was in its inaugural phase in Mexico in 1996 and 1997 when I conducted my initial ethnographic research. The study is thus based largely on observations made during a distinctive, formative window in the history of a longer-term project. This perspective affords, as we shall see, particular insights into the processes through which prospecting's tenuous circuits of exchange are established. And, it also provides a window into a distinctive moment in the public profile of prospecting in Mexico and internationally. It was a moment (it turns out) of relative calm, but as we shall see, the specter of protest and activist mobilizations loomed large for the Mexican researchers implementing the agreement on which I focus. This anticipation, I will argue, has gone a long way in helping shape the contours of that collaboration.
But the reference to prospecting's making and unmaking is not just meant to signal a retrospective (and closed-off) sense of "trajectory." It is also meant to signal something "in the works," an indeterminate and multiform process-a sense of the unexpected twists and turns that we encounter when tracking the processes set in motion simultaneously in the name of and despite prospecting's fragile promise of equitable returns. As this ethnography will show, the road to such forms of participation and reciprocity is bumpy indeed, and it leads us to places we might not expect.
Prospecting in Public
Before previewing where we will find ourselves, a quick word on where we will not. This book is not an ethnography of indigenous knowledge practices, communities, or "local knowledge" in any conventional sense. Nor is it an account of corporate drug discovery per se. One of my aims is to explore the unsettled relationship between a prospecting collaboration and its (oft-imagined) constitutive subjects and objects. As we shall see, bioprospecting is not merely a "channel" along which travel local knowledge, biodiversity, and community or even corporate interests. Rather, these contracts are implicated in producing, invoking, and giving shape to these subjects, objects, and interests in the first place.
This ethnography of prospecting is, primarily, an ethnography of science: it treats scientific research practices as key points of entry into prospecting's play of resource extraction and compensation. At the center of this analysis are the UNAM ethnobotanists and chemists who are implementing the Latin America ICBG in Mexico. These researchers are both mediators of and participants in this international collaboration, and their research practices are crucial sites of political negotiation. When the UNAM ethnobotanists collect plants, they are also collecting benefit-recipients; when the UNAM chemists test collected plants for their industrial potential, they are also helping broker new kinds of distribution of industrially mediated "value." In this context, routine decisions about which plants to collect, or what kingdom to scan for potential value, become inextricably laced with the explosive question of who shall become the "beneficiaries" of a new international politics of biodiversity entrepreneurialism, and on what basis.
It is precisely because of the newly delicate nature of these negotiations that the "routine" sites where we will find ourselves may seem anything but routine.
Excerpted from When Nature Goes Public by Cori Hayden Excerpted by permission.
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