TCS Daily

'Noble Savages' Savaging Noble Men

By Duane D. Freese - July 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Sometimes pictures in our heads get in the way of our seeing the obvious.

That's certainly been the case in the media's depiction of a bioprospecting fight in Chiapas, Mexico, that holds relevance for the future pursuit of medicines from the wild.

Brent Berlin, who directs the University of Georgia's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, has focused his research on answering two questions: What can we learn about how humans understand their environment (especially their biological environment)? And how can we use this understanding to improve the well being of human kind?

In pursuit of answers, Berlin has spent four decades with his wife collecting knowledge about the influence of plants on Mayan culture in Chiapas.

The region of about one million inhabitants is among the most biologically diverse in the world. It is just the kind of place the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) -- signed by 188 nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 -- was supposed to help protect. CBD affirmed the sovereign rights of countries to their genetic resources, as well as the traditional knowledge developed by indigenous peoples of their use, so as to encourage the protection of their biodiversity. Money to help them do so was to come from outsiders -- drug companies, agribusiness and educators -- paying to gain access in order to do bioprospecting. A symbiotic relationship supposedly would emerge to the benefit of everyone.

Berlin hoped to create just such a situation. He put together a model program in 1993 with the Colegio Frontera de Sur in Chiapas de las Casas (ECOSUR), a Mexican research institution devoted to sustainable long term development.

They sought a $2.5 million grant from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group of the National Institutes of Health. They were awarded the grant in 1997 after adding a start up nutriceutical company from Britain to the project. The nutriceutical company was added, Berlin told me in an interview with him in late May, at the advice of the NIH to provide additional expertise. If their plant investigations proved novel, patentable compounds could then be taken through the drug development process to benefit patients and consumers. (The likelihood of such a discovery was pretty small -- not one blockbuster drug had come from natural sources for about a decade.)

In going to the disparate Mayan communities in Chiapas, Berlin downplayed the likelihood of anyone getting rich quick. He emphasized instead the potential for creating sustainable local industries by trade-marking local herbal remedies, much as the state of Georgia has trademarked onions from Vidalia County.

The institutions were teaching Mayans how to run computers, follow laboratory procedures and conduct field research. Ultimately, they planned to catalogue the plants in the area (providing for their future protection), improve Mayan medicine by checking on the efficacy and safety of the herbs and clean up their preparation so they could be safely sold in health food and alternative medicine stores around the globe.

Profits from any commercialization of products from the project were to be split four ways, with a quarter going to participating Mayan communities. The rest would go to the research institutions to cover their costs, pay for additional research in Chiapas or go for community development projects there.

Defenders of the 'Collective'

Some 46 local Mayan communities of Chiapas, following their own local traditions and rules, signed agreements to participate in the program. And more would have surely followed -- except for fierce opposition from a single, unelected group: the Council of Traditional Healers and Midwives of Chiapas, known as Compitch, which received major support in spreading its message by a Canadian NGO, RAFI, now known as ETC.

What was that message? Sebastian Luna, a Compitch spokesman, claimed,

        "The project, led by anthropologist Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia, 
        is plundering our knowledge and taking plant samples from the communities 
        in Chiapas, returning almost nothing in exchange. ... (It) explicitly proposes to 
        patent and privatize resources and knowledge that have always been 
        collectively owned."

RAFI on its website, meanwhile, hung the epithet "biopirate" on Berlin. Left-wing NGOs such as Global Exchange and socialist activists spread the epithet throughout the NGO network, which has maintained that characterization ever since.

The patent claim was, well, patently false. As defined by title 35 of the U.S. Code, inventors must develop a product or process that is novel (§ 102), useful (§ 101), and non-obvious (§ 103(b)). Natural wonders and traditional knowledge don't qualify. The claims of biopiracy were also meritless, resting on a stupid claim that bioprospecting was illegitimate unless all indigenous communities in a region approve it.

Nonetheless, their outlandish claims and distortions of Berlin's project drummed up enough opposition so that the Mexican government, in the midst of Zapatista unrest, pulled Berlin's permits and killed the project in 2001.

Ever since, the media has sold the notion that the project's problem was a cultural conflict over multinationals attempting to patent life.

The Nation's Mark Weinberg, for example, lumped it in with other battles as part of "corporate designs on Mexico's Indian land." He argued that "peace is likely to remain illusory in southern Mexico as long as the government remains beholden to corporate globalization."

Newsweek's Alan Zarembo got one part of the problem right when he noted that Chiapas had become a Magnet for Globophobes in April 2001. Yet he still wrote Berlin's project's had the primary aim of finding cures that could be patented. To emphasize the point, he quoted Anotonio Perez Mendez, a local healer who claimed he could cure cancer and AIDS with plants, saying: "We don't accept patents." He also quoted Global Exchange's Ryan Zinn as saying Berlin was "not 'a classic biopirate' but one of the new breed who 'do the dirty work' for multinationals," without allowing Berlin to respond.

Worst of all, though, was a report by Mary Stuckey on NPR's MarketPlace this May. Not only did its lead-in mischaracterize the Maya ICBG "as an ambitious effort by U.S. biotech companies in Mexico," Stuckey let stand Compitch attorney Juan Ignacio's false claim that Berlin was seeking to patent Mayan plants and knowledge.

Power Play

While the media cast a sympathetic eye on Compitch and the NGOs, they failed to fully examine their mixed motivations for opposing the Maya ICBG.

No doubt one image these reporters had in their heads was the Mayans as victims. The era of colonization and nation-building has left many indigenous groups in the third world on the outside looking in. Their desire for self-determination, recognition of their property rights, control of their natural resources and maintenance of their knowledge and traditions are perfectly understandable, as is suspicion of outsiders.

But Berlin was working with ECOSUR, an insider. And he'd been there 40 years. Further, the Maya ICBG program had gained acceptance from dozens of Mayan communities before Compitch and the NGOs distorted what it was doing. All of this suggests ulterior motives were at work, including some right in front of reporters' eyes.

Barbara Belejack wrote for The Texas Observer in 2001 about Compitch:

        "In addition to hierberos, (herbal doctors) Compitch includes parteras (midwives),
        hueseros (bonesetters), rezadores, who offer prayers to the nearby mountains,
        and iloles, who, like their counterparts in Chinese medicine, listen to their 
        patients' pulses to diagnose their illnesses. In a small workshop, Compitch 
        members were preparing herbal remedies; Don Antonio sold me several packets 
        of eucalyptus and other herbs he said would be good for a nagging cough. 
        I was supposed to brew a tea and drink it three times a day. At five pesos 
        a packet worth about 60 cents at the time ­it seemed like a good deal. Cheaper 
        than antibiotics that didn't seem to be working."

Stripped of the trimmings, what Belejack described was a medical center. But it was one for which no medical license was needed, no scientific checks were made for safety or against false claims of effectiveness, no assurance of quality was provided. And she bought it, and with it Compitch's pitch that it was worried about the theft of Mayan medical secrets, rather than the exposure of many of their practices as lacking any medical merit. Berlin's program, after all, had to examine the safety and effectiveness of herbal remedies if they were to be marketable.

Noble Savages, Savaging Noble Aims

Why didn't she examine more closely the selfish motive Compitch had to oust Berlin? Because the medicines were cheap and the people poor? Because she liked Don Antonio? Or perhaps, because she had a picture in her head of indigenous peoples being modern day "noble savages," living in harmony with nature and making use of its abundant medicine chest for their healing arts?

As Joanne Cissel found in a Dickenson College research paper in 1997, and Beth Conklin of Vanderbilt University noted in an article for Anthropology News in 2003, NGOs have made the notion of "noble savages" a staple of their environmental message for years.

Whether an NGO actually believes that the myth is true, or it merely suits an anti-capitalist agenda, is anyone's guess. But whatever the reason, in the real world, the myth has deadly consequences.

Max Borders of George Mason University's Institute of Humane Studies, noted that "the Western intellectual elite romanticize a contemporary version of the noble savage" that ignores that "(l)ife expectancies of tribal populations in the developing world range from the 20s to the 40s." The average life expectancy in Chiapas is under 50 years.

To change that requires not less globalization in Chiapas but more participation by Chiapan Mayans in the global market.

As Berlin describes the situation:

        "You and I are on a train -- you can call it the globalization train, ... free trade 
        train ... -- but you and I are on it and my detractors are on it. But the folks 
        who are not on it are the Maya. They are standing there as it goes by. 
        They want to get on it. They want to have the ability to have a television set. 
        They would like to have running water. ... And they can't get on the train 
        unless they can pay the ticket. Their best ticket is the commercial use 
        of their bio-diversity, and we ought to make it possible for it to happen. But 
        it won't if the globophobes keep running us out of Mexico."

And it also won't happen if the media refuse to recognize that some indigenous people and NGOs have selfish motivations for keeping people ignorant and poor. They aren't all noble savages; Berlin is a noble man.

To see the full interview with Brent Berlin, click here.


TCS Daily Archives