Biopiracy in Venezuela

Biopiracy in Venezuela

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By Julio César Centeno

The Venezuelan Ministry of the Environment was characterized as one of the most corrupt arms of the administration of President Rafael Caldera. In 1998, it signed a contract with the Federal University of Zurich, Switzerland, granting access rights to genetic resources and "intangible" resources of the Yanomami territory. The 'intangibles' include the ancestral knowledge and practices of indigenous communities. It was signed without due notification to the Yanomami populations and without their consent and represents an unusual looting of the ancestral knowledge of the Yanomami and the genetic biodiversity of their territory.

Biopiracy is a nefarious activity generated by strategic, economic and political interests of transnational companies and the governments of the countries where they come from. The South American countries and indigenous peoples are practically defenseless before the uncontrolled expropriation of their wealth and knowledge.

Biopiracy includes both the appropriation of biological and genetic resources from developing countries, particularly countries rich in tropical forests, and the appropriation of ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples related to these resources. To legalize the usurpation, patents are registered, which are then protected by multinational or bilateral agreements on intellectual property rights, in turn imposed by the countries and usurping companies to the rest of the world.

Multinational companies find themselves in fierce competition to patent any form of life or genetic resource that is allowed, frequently appropriating what does not belong to them and stripping the rightful owners of their rights. This includes patents on plants, animals, biological processes, and natural genetic records, including genetic fractions of humans.

The dispossession also extends to ancestral knowledge of indigenous communities that can generate economic, strategic or political benefits for the usurpers. The usurpers are usually transnational companies, governments, scientific or environmental institutions from industrialized countries. The victims are usually developing countries and their indigenous communities.

Biopiracy Cases

A North American institution called International Plant Medicine Corporation patented Ayahuasca, a plant considered sacred by many indigenous peoples of the Amazon, used for centuries in spiritual and healing rituals. It was patented on June 17, 1986 under number 5,571 in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, in the name of Loren Illar. The patent was canceled thirteen years later, after a long period of litigation in the capital of the United States.

In 1994, two alleged scientists from the University of Colorado patented Quinoa, a cereal that is very rich in protein and is part of the diet of millions of indigenous people and farmers in the South American Andes. Its protein composition is higher than that of corn, rice or sorghum. The patent was registered under number 530471.

The DuPont company patented in 2001 a variety of corn grown in Mexico for generations. These patents have managed to be revoked after complaints from indigenous organizations, but hundreds of others have gone unnoticed.

Two multinational companies, Pure World Botanicals and Biotics Research Corporation, have disputed patents on Maca, also known as natural viagra. Maca has been part of the diet and pharmacology of the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Andes for centuries. However, Biotics Research Corporation was granted a US patent, number US 6093421, dated 06-25-2000, to market Maca as a testosterone booster. While Pure World Botanicals registered a patent in the European Patent Office, number 6267995, dated 07/31/2001, to commercialize Maca for pharmaceutical purposes.

Biopiracy has become a systematic theft of gigantic proportions. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that the pharmaceutical industry in industrialized countries generates an annual profit of 30,000 million dollars only from the pharmacological use of medicinal plants in developing countries.

Genetic Resources

The industrialized countries of North America and Europe are currently woefully poor in genetic resources. This situation is a consequence of the predatory and destructive practices of natural resources, characteristic of their development models.

More than 75% of the planet's genetic resources are found in developing countries, associated mainly with natural tropical forests, half of which are found in the Amazon and South American Orinoquia.

Humanity is at the same time in a stage of transition from the age of electronics to the age of genetics. The genetic heritage of tropical countries, particularly that of the Amazonian countries, is thus one of their main strategic, economic and political riches. Thus, it should not surprise us that a powerful and well-articulated strategy has been unleashed by the most powerful countries on the planet and their transnational companies to seize this fabulous natural wealth.

Biopiracy in Venezuela

Venezuela is one of the eight richest countries in genetic diversity in the world. This diversity is closely linked to the country's natural forests.

The recognition of the rights of indigenous populations in the 1999 national constitution, including the right to their ancestral territories, generates a close relationship between biodiversity, genetic resources and indigenous populations. The appropriation of genetic resources and ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples, by corporations and transnational research centers, implies the dispossession of one of the most important resources of both indigenous communities and the Venezuelan nation.

Venezuela has been, and continues to be, a victim of biopiracy. The presence of the nefarious North American organization Las Nuevas Tribus for decades in the Venezuelan jungles contributed not only to destroying the cultural, mythological and religious heritage of indigenous communities. It also served to carry out explorations for the location, identification and quantification of mineral and biological resources of a strategic nature, as well as for the looting of a good part of the ancestral knowledge of the indigenous communities that suffered from its presence.

The criminal activity of the New Tribes in Venezuelan territory was not only authorized by the current rulers, but flagrant violations of current legislation were frequently used to facilitate the dispossession of the country.

At the end of 1998, during the government transition period between the outgoing president Rafael Caldera and the incoming president Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan Ministry of the Environment signed a contract with the Federal University of Zurich, Switzerland, in which it granted rights to access to genetic resources and "intangible" resources of the Yanomami territory. Said contract was signed without due notification to the Yanomami populations and without their consent. The contract represents an unusual looting of the ancestral knowledge of the Yanomami and the genetic biodiversity of their territory.

The contract explicitly grants the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) school in Zürich, Switzerland, a concession for access to genetic resources and their derivative products "... for the purposes of research, biological prospecting, conservation, industrial application and industrial use, among others".

It also includes access to and use of intangible components. These are defined as follows: "All knowledge, innovation or practice, individual or collective, with real or potential value, associated with the genetic resource or its derived products, or with the biological resource that contains it, protected or not by property regimes intellectual".

The delivery was total, including the registration of trade and industrialization patents. The possible benefits are shared between the Federal University of Zurich and the Ministry of the Environment of Venezuela. The Ministry is satisfied with 20% "... of the royalty rights for patents, commercialization and industrialization of the products or substances that are derived from the investigations and discoveries of the use of the genetic resources granted in concession to the ETH". The remaining 80% is for the Swiss.

The indigenous people were excluded from the negotiations of their own ancestral knowledge and practices. They were also excluded from the distribution of the benefits that could be derived. The contract leaves unilaterally to the ETH the final decision on the granting to the indigenous people of a percentage of the benefits derived from the concession contract, through possible direct negotiations with the indigenous people, without the participation of the Venezuelan state.

In this way, the Ministry of the Environment, in illegitimate representation of the Venezuelan nation, participates in a grotesque and unusual dispossession of the ancestral knowledge of the Yanomami communities.

The Yanomami are found in the heart of the Amazon, where biodiversity indices are among the highest recorded in the world. Their culture has developed in close connection with their natural environment, accumulating knowledge and refining their relationships with the jungles that have served as their home for thousands of years. Their legitimate rights to their own ancestral knowledge, and to the genetic resources in their territories, were ignored.

The unusual contract also includes a payment of 30% of its cost "for the indigenous communities involved whose knowledge is being used." The cost of the contract is set at 30,000 Swiss francs, about $ 18,000. That payment is also negotiable, so it could eventually become the engine of a boat, or anything else.

The National Congress of that time had approved a new Biodiversity Law the previous year. But, coincidentally, President Caldera returned it to the Attorney General's Office "for study." In the intermediate period, the delivery of the necessary permits to carry out this investigation is expedited, when the country lacked adequate legislation on the matter.

The contract is signed by Rafael Martinez Monro, Minister of the Environment, on behalf of the Republic of Venezuela, just days before the inauguration of President Hugo Chávez. The Ministry of the Environment was characterized as one of the most corrupt arms of the administration of President Rafael Caldera. Representing ETH is the signature of its vice president, Albert Waldvogel.

This nefarious contract included the phytochemical verification of the medicinal potential of the plants used by the Yanomami in their magical or medicinal practices. Some of the phytochemical and biological analyzes would be done at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Central University of Venezuela. The others in Switzerland. The project also included:

¨ The analysis of "... the distribution of medicinal plants, poisons and magical plants among the Yanomami".

¨ A determination of the distribution of medicinal botanical resources in the Yanomami territory.

- A quantitative evaluation of those resources.

¨ An analysis of the cultural strategies of the Yanomami for the management of these resources.

The project actually included a compilation of the Yanomami pharmacopoeia in Venezuela.

The ancestral knowledge of the Yanomami people about medicinal plants, poisons and magical plants, is also part of the study. For this purpose, interviews of the researchers with the Yanomami "... on the use and care of medicinal plants" are included.

One year after this shameful case, characteristic of the practices of the time and the degrading treatment of indigenous peoples, the new national constitution was approved. Article 124 establishes: "The collective intellectual property of the knowledge, technologies and innovations of indigenous peoples is guaranteed and protected. All activities related to genetic resources and the knowledge associated with them will pursue collective benefits. The registration of patents is prohibited. on these resources and ancestral knowledge "

Unfortunately, there is little practical progress to enforce this and other constitutional provisions. The jungles of Imataca, Caura and the upper Orinoco are just some of the territories that have become a free field for bio-prospecting, exploration and quantification of biological, genetic and pharmacological resources by groups or organizations that are self -qualify as scientific, environmental or humanitarian.

Some Venezuelan organizations, branches or dependencies of environmental transnational corporations, protected by alleged scientific, ecological or humanitarian initiatives, frequently contribute to the looting of the biological and genetic heritage of the country, or to the expropriation of the ancestral knowledge of indigenous communities.

A private foundation operating in Venezuela, FUDECI, has created a database called Biozulua. It includes hundreds of records on animal, vegetable and mineral resources used by the indigenous communities of the Venezuelan Amazon and their geographical location through GPS positioning. It specifies the uses given by each indigenous community to these resources, whether of a medicinal, food, religious or pharmacological nature, and the preparation and consumption procedures. Venezuelan indigenous organizations such as Conive and Orpia have denounced that FUDECI's activities were carried out without the prior consent of the affected communities, and that most of the information was provided without being duly informed that it would become part of a database of data owned by FUDECI. Nothing prevents this organization from commercializing the information collected.

The foundation recognizes that its activities include the "Rescue of Ancestral Knowledge" and "Biotrade". Indigenous organizations request the intervention of national authorities to prevent the information from being marketed and so that the management of said database is reserved for indigenous communities.

Researchers from the University of California claim to have "discovered" an anti-inflammatory agent called pseudopterosin, obtained from Pseudopterongorgia elisabethae allegedly in Venezuelan waters of the Caribbean Sea. This product is part of a cream marketed by the Estee Lauder company called Resilience. The Canadian organization RAFI estimates that only between 1998 and 2000 this patent generated royalties for the University of California of more than $ 750,000. The university has also entered into marketing agreements on the same product with two other companies, OsteoArthritis Sciences Inc and Nereus Pharmaceuticals. Already for the year 2000 millionaire benefits were estimated for this concept.


The national constitution explicitly prohibits the registration of patents on genetic resources and ancestral knowledge of indigenous communities. However, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity does allow them, thus protecting the criminal activities that proliferate uncontrollably in the South American rainforests on this matter.

Consequently, there is an urgent need for joint and coordinated action both by the governments of the Amazonian countries, and by the different indigenous groups in the region, to establish mechanisms that prevent and penalize biopiracy, expropriation of genetic resources and the looting of ancestral knowledge. of indigenous communities.

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