with a bitter
by Sandra Weiss
On the national road no. 5 between Paraguay and Brazil lies the gate to the heart of the Guaraní world. It is made of wood and recently secured with a padlock because, as Luis Arce has learned, hospitality can be fatal. "About 40 years ago, the Japanese came," recalls the 60-year-old Guaraní boss. It must have been quite an ordeal. At that time, only tracks led to the indigenous community of Ita Guasú. Today there is still neither electricity nor running water. People live in simple wooden huts and cook their food over open fires. Child mortality, malnutrition and illiteracy are significantly higher than in the rest of Paraguay.
The Japanese knew what they were looking for in this lonely place in the border area: the sweet herb stevia rebaudiana. "My father readily showed them the plant," Arce recalls. The idea of owned property does not exist in the Guaraní worldview; Nature gives people what they need and so you must only take as much as is necessary.”
But that was not the thinking of the Japanese Science Mission which, with the full permission of the Paraguayan government, cleared the land of all the plants they were interested in. "Soon after, they came back again, dug up all the bushes they found and left," says Arce. What could have been an economic success story for the Guaraní and for Paraguay was over, before it even began.
Biopiracy" is what non-governmental organisations such as Swiss Public Eye call such an approach. In 1993, a UN Convention on Biodiversity was created to prevent the abuse of indigenous people’s knowledge without their consent and without benefit sharing. "But the convention is not interpreted by the industrialised countries as applying to stevia," complains Francois Meienberg of Public Eye.
“The conduct of the industrialized countries is ‘immoral."
The countries of the South say that every new use falls under the convention. Developed countries claim that it is only applies to the use of genetic resources that were sourced after the protocol came into force in the countries of origin. "The organisation is on the side of developing countries and calls for compensation for the Guaraní.
The behaviour of the industrialised countries is immoral," criticises the former president of the State Seed Agency SENAVE, Miguel Lovera, “because it runs contrary to the spirit of the convention, since most of the plants on earth were well known and cataloged long before the Convention. Europe has betrayed us.”
"A tiny snippet of a leaf, only a few millimetres long, leaves a sweet taste in the mouth for more than an hour; a few leaves sweeten a cup of coffee or tea."
This sleight of hand by the industrialised countries is motivated by money: Stevia is at the centre of a billion-dollar poker game for the food industry. Sugar is harmful to your health and we eat way too much of it - this knowledge is spreading, despite the sugar industry spreading propaganda to the contrary, and governments like in Mexico and Ecuador are creating food traffic lights or imposing punitive taxes to reduce its consumption. The hunt for a healthy sweetness has begun and stevia - included in "Cola Life" for example - is at the focus of research by corporations. Already, products containing steviol glycosides amount to nearly $10 billion annually.
A biologist from Ticino discovered stevia during a stay in Paraguay in 1887 and brought it back to the "old world". "A tiny snippet of a leaf, only a few millimetres long, leaves a sweet taste in the mouth for more than an hour; a few leaves sweeten a cup of coffee or tea,” wrote Moises Bertoni. In 1931, French researchers examined the chemical compounds of the herb. It emerged that stevia contains several glucose molecules - in contrast to commercial sugar, which is based on sucrose. This not only makes stevia tooth and figure friendly but it can also be tolerated by diabetics. In addition, unlike artificial sweeteners like aspartame, stevia remains stable even at high temperatures.
The disadvantage of the natural form, however, is a bitter aftertaste. Companies like the Swiss Evolva, want to filter this out by synthetic manufacturing. Creating a product by the use of genetically manipulated yeasts. Evolva will be supported by US Conglomerate Cargill. The result could be a steviol glycoside that has never seen a stevia plant.
Of course this synthetic sweetener would no longer be ‘natural’, as stevia is usually touted. Yet the manufacture of steviol glycoside, 80% of which is produced in China, is anything but healthy. In a process that is similar to the manufacture of cocaine, the leaves are first dried and then the molecules are dissolved with aluminium salts, then cleaned and discoloured through the use of so-called ion exchangers and resin absorbers. In order to produce a light powder from the liquid, methanol or ethanol are used to cause crystallisation.
There are hundreds of patents for similar processes worldwide - not one in Paraguay so far, where the state and business owners wrongly assumed that nature was not patentable. To date, stevia copyrights or Guaraní compensation payments have not been a national issue and not even the Paraguayan Human Rights Commission has dealt with them. But at least the ombudsman Manuel Monge finds the idea interesting. "The state is in debt to the Indians," he says. In a telephone conversation with this publication, the Foreign Minister, Eladio Loizaga, did not want to comment as to whether the government would support such a request internationally.
The legal process would probably be very long and tedious. A compensation fund would be faster but requires an agreement between the Guaraní and the corporations. Meienberg does not expect more than one percent of the turnover. "But even that would be important." The Swiss company Evolva expressed willingness to negotiate an agreement on a "fair benefit settlement". Nestle reiterated a more reserved support to the principle benefit sharing and the possibility of a "renewed commitment" to stevia. Unilever, however, did not respond to the request of this newspaper; Coca-Cola evasively stated that the company was striving for sustainability and was trying to "create a suitable environment for Paraguayan farmers to market Stevia”.
The end result would be a Steviol glycoside, which had never seen a Stevia plant.
"The state is in debt to the indigenous people!"
In Ita Guasú there is no stevia to be seen today, as the 97-year-old matriarch Dona Amalia Valiente complains. The elders believe the plant resents them for selling it off to the Japanese. For two generations it has not been used by the Guaraní - partly because it is now hard to find. There is a stream, remember the elders, where there may still be some growing wild but it is on a cattle farm, fenced and guarded by armed guards. Land grabs are a particular problem for the former nomadic people. In Paraguay, but especially on the Brazilian side of the border, ranchers, sugar, soy and drug barons have staked a claim to tens of thousands of hectares, often at gunpoint, with counterfeit land titles and the help of corrupt officials.
From the Garden of Eden, the Guaraní now subsist on no more than 5,000 remaining hectares. Every average hacienda in this region has 10,000 hectares. Drug lords recruit the young Indigenous. Evangelical churches with their promise of salvation penetrate into the world of the Guaraní and the imported grasses planted by the cattle barons displace the native vegetation. That's why Arce likes the idea of justice via a compensatory fund. "If we had money, we could buy back the land and then maybe the whites would leave us alone," the man with the furrowed face hopes. He wants nothing more than that.
The report was created thanks to a scholarship of the German Institute for Human Rights.
"If we had money, we could buy back the land and then maybe the whites would leave us alone."