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Herb women
    against  Big Industry

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The never-ending battle for the copyright of indigenous medicinal plants

Charlotte Eichhorn

from

Excerpt from the draft law:

The province of Misiones in Argentina has recognized "Indigenous Medicine" as complementary medicine in the public health system, alongside other alternative healing methods. However, it is still unclear how exactly this medicine will be reimbursed and who is officially authorized to practise it. The draft law states in its usual, incomprehensible, and vague technical jargon:

"Qualified professionals for the practice or therapies of traditional and complementary medicine are those who possess a degree acquired through relevant educational programs that are recognized if they already exist or have obtained authorization from the enforcement authority.”

But what does that mean for an indigenous community? Do indigenous herbal women, often of an older age and barely able to read, have to be "educated" at university based on their centuries-old, traditional knowledge? Do they win or lose? More than a year after the official approval, there is nothing conclusive yet. Industry is now attempting to exploit this situation to its advantage.

 

In a country like Argentina, where inflation of the peso has been up to 140% annually for years, even small incomes are important for indigenous people.

The crux is: In the remote areas of the mountain region where there is still forest with indigenous communities, a non-indigenous Argentinean patient who is interested in indigenous remedies usually cannot get there because there are no proper access roads. It would be easier to reach the indigenous communities near urban areas, but due to the lack of virgin forest, they no longer have any medicinal herbs. 

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Elsa Ortega

 

is a herb woman and Mby'a-Guaraní. She is the mother of Jorgelina Duarte.

She raised 11 children who all survived thanks to her herbs - something that was by no means common in her generation.

She has been living in one of the few legally recognized indigenous communities since its founding - Tamandua in the state of Misiones at the border triangle between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

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Jorgelina Duarte

is Mby'a-Guaraní,

 

and delegate of the Guaraní umbrella organisation CCNAGUA.

She earns her living as a Guaraní language teacher in an intercultural Mb'ya-Guaraní school.

Her late grandfather was one of the most renowned shamans of the Mby'a-Guaraní. She misses him dearly.

Not all indigenous women have knowledge of local medicinal plants; it depends on with whom and where they grew up.

The Mby'a-Guaraní herb woman Elsa and her daughter Jorgelina are fortunate to live in a remote mountain region where untouched forest still exists. The state-recognized indigenous village of Tamandua is far away from larger cities inhabited by non-indigenous people. Here, they have been able to preserve their identity to a large extent. Within a few hours in the nearby forest, Elsa can find over a dozen important medicinal plants whose diversity and applications are enormous. However, it is difficult for non-indigenous Argentinian patients to reach her as there are no proper access roads.

Their own sales channels?

Now that indigenous medicine is officially recognized, Jorgelina's wish would be to establish their own shops selling medicinal herbs in indigenous communities, just like those that have existed for a long time in many states of Brazil.

The herb garden is too remote for customers. Therefore, decades ago they opened a professionally equipped store in the city of Macapá to generate income. Thanks to the help of NGOs, this store has even survived during the time of the right-wing, anti- indigenous Bolsonaro government.

For example, for 30 years now, a state-run secondary school on an island at the mouth of the Amazon river has been running a herb garden with medicinal plants.

Throughout Brazil there are university programs that allow for the cataloging of indigenous medicinal plants in collaboration with local Guaraní groups. This not only protects their intellectual property rights but also creates new income opportunities for their communities through the use of these plants in phytotherapy. These partnerships also explore pharmacological applications

In the Argentine province of Misiones, a small and remote state with limited financial resources and constant economic crises, there is nothing comparable. 

InIndigenous herb women like Elsa are still pleased that their healing methods are finally being recognized. If only she were „certified“! Because only then would it provide them with legal protection against possible lawsuits in case their indigenous herbal remedies were to have insufficient effect. Terminally ill patients often resort to them as a last hope.

Exerpt from a documentary about the work of Dra. Mariana:

The Mby'a-Guaraní people are in a difficult situation. For centuries, they have used freshly picked herbs in their traditional medicine, which is closely linked to their holistic philosophy of life, their Cosmovision. Additionally, other healing rituals such as ceremonies and dances are often part of the treatment process. Is it even possible to commercialize something like this?

Selling original dried medicinal plants such as tea, tinctures, or drops from indigenous hands could form a line of business. However, the market demand domestically and internationally is likely minimal and even if the indigenous intellectual property rights are respected, it would probably not generate much money or cover production and distribution costs.

On the other hand, the Guaraní herb women hope that official recognition will help spark the interest of the younger generation in their knowledge. In April, Dra. Mariana, together with a shaman, organized a herbal medicine course for indigenous Mby'a-Guaraní youth near her residence at the request of local Caciques (community leaders). These young people have daily contact with the "white world" and often no longer live in pristine forests.

These youth who live between two worlds have partly lost their indigenous identity and the "indigenous land" beneath their feet. They have been at risk of suicide for decades.

Indigenous healing is not applied with medicinal plants only.

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Dra. Mariana

Doctor,

 

is a fifth generation Argentinian with Swiss roots, now retired.

For over 20 years, she was responsible for providing medical care to Mby'a-Guaraní communities in the state of Misiones in northeastern Argentina.

 

Being friends with Jorgelina Duarte, an Mby'a-Guaraní herself, Dra. Mariana has supported her.

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Some young people living between two worlds have partly lost their indigenous identity, the "indigenous terra „ under their feet, and are at risk of committing suicide.

Dra. Mariana hopes that these young people will recognize the value of their ancient knowledge and would want to earn money from it. There are already some initial successes. One cacique plans to publish a book about medicinal herbs, and in collaboration with a local university, a database is being created to collect and document indigenous knowledge. Such a database could serve as a basis for future licenses and intellectual property claims by indigenous peoples.

Some interested non-indigenous youth from the area also participated in the course. This shows that the topic has the potential to build bridges. Together, they concluded that an important step would be to establish local herb gardens for growing both indigenous and general medicinal plants. Of course, not everything would thrive since some medicinal plants require the biodiversity of the forest.

Dra. Mariana is now retired. She comes from a combative generation of Argentinian pro-indigenous activists who are strongly oriented towards the West. For decades, she provided medical care to local Mby'a communities and raised funds for small projects from European donations. She is friends with Jorgelina and many other Mby'a people but sometimes faces criticism from the young, politically active indigenous generation who view her well-intentioned actions as being often too colonialist and intercultural. Dra. Mariana understands this criticism and accepts it.

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Her indigenous friend Jorgelina has developed her own political stance. She is a regional leader and represents the Mby'a-Guaraní in four other neighbouring countries.   

Jorgelina spends a lot of time in the region as well as in the "white European world." She knows that some local Indigenous people dream of making lots of money with medicinal plants just like non-Indigenous people do. However, unlike Western entrepreneurs and corporations, they lack knowledge about how to approach this.

The Nagoya Protocol provides an international legal framework for national regulations regarding access to genetic resources, the sharing of the resulting benefits, and the monitoring of compliance with these regulations.

Above all, Jorgelina fears biopiracy and this fear is well justified. There are countless examples of the illegal appropriation of indigenous knowledge around the world and some of them date back a long time. Since 2010, there has been an international biodiversity convention which countries of the Guaraní nations such as Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil have joined. The so-called Nagoya Protocol is supposed to put indigenous knowledge under copyright protection. Unfortunately, in many places the protocol serves only as a fig leaf and is not incorporated into local legislation. Biopiracy continues to run rampant worldwide.

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The nutritional supplement industry and biopiracy: 

The example of Stevia

The gateway for biopiracy lies in the different definitions of "knowledge." In Paraguay, for example, where the sweet and medicinal herb Stevia grows, the law however also grants protection for the invention patents of researchers who scientifically and technically develop further the traditional knowledge. This gives them the right of personal creation with copyright protection. An example of this is the in-depth study of the plant "Stevia rebaudiana," mainly used by Indigenous people as a sweet herb. It has been documented that it also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and blood pressure-lowering effects.

few years ago Jorgelina was intensively involved in studying biopiracy using Stevia as an example. At that time the Guarani, supported by NGOs like Public Eye from Switzerland, tried to force the food industry to provide compensate for appropriating their plants. Stevia is used by the industry as a sweetener in low-calorie beverages.

2017 / 18

Attempts to patent medicinal plants

In the early 2000s, wild west behaviour prevailed when it came to indigenous knowledge. The Cupuaçu tree native to the Amazon was stolen, grown elsewhere, and registered for patent.

In traditional medicine, Cupuaçu is also used as a wound healing agent. The plant is also of interest to the cosmetics industry as its fat protects against the sun and is said to be effective against skin aging. However, an English cosmetics patent was withdrawn in 2000 after worldwide protests.

Cupuaçu has a pleasant fruity-sour taste and belongs to the same family as cocoa. In 2000, it was patented by a Japanese company as a cheap chocolate by-product of a molasses called "Cupulate", which is used for chocolate production.

Exerpt from:

The annual Cupuaçu Festival has been taking place in the middle of the jungle in the state of Amazonas since 1993, about 100 km from Manaus along the only main road.ajor road about 100 km from Manaus.

 

In 2003, the patenting of Cupuaçu Cupulate led to local women in the “Presidente Figueiredo” community, who make homemade chocolate confectionary for the Cupuaçu Festival, being forced to pay patent fees to Japanese companies.

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International protest movements began and already in 2005, Cupulate patenting was abolished  thanks to a first ruling due to a "declaration of nullity“ in Germany.

Before the international adoption of the biodiversity agreement, the patenting of indigenous plants in every country was arbitrarily handled and at best condemned as an "immoral" act.

Coca-Cola Life sweetened with stevia disappeared from the market due to poor sales figures, but stevia continues to be traded worldwide as a sugar substitute without indigenous people receiving any copyright compensation.

The full story:

All original articles from 2017/18 in which co-author Sandra Weiss also dealt extensively on-the-spot with the case of Stevia.

Stevia is called "Ka'He'e" in Guaraní - the sweet herb.

The support from abroad has now dried up. The Stevia report on the website of the Swiss NGO Public Eye, which back then had initiated the action project to protect the copyright of stevia, was last updated in 2018.

No money has ever flowed into the hands of Indigenous people, as they were promised at the time. Not only Jorgelina but also Dra. Mariana feels duped by the NGOs today. However, they also see something positive in this: through these actions surrounding Stevia and South African Rooibos tea, the problem of biopiracy has generally received more attention in Europe. At the same time, however, the trade in so-called miracle plants, medicinal herbs and dietary supplements has increased.

The COVID-19 pandemic, especially, has fuelled interest in alternative medicine. For example, 3 out of 4 Germans take dietary supplements. In Germany alone, sales volume amounted to €2.69 billion in 2022. It is estimated that by 2028 the global market size for dietary supplements will reach US $239.4 billion.

However, what is available on store shelves is often questionable and sometimes even hazardous to health - as consumer protection agencies and media frequently warn. The problem lies in the fact that the term "natural," which is readily used in advertising, is not a protected concept. Dietary supplements do not have to be tested worldwide according to quality and content.

Stevia sweeteners are often mixed with chemical products such as vitamins and binders. In a complicated process, they are transformed into steviol glycoside using synthetically selected parts of the plant.

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Exerpt from:

In 2010, when the Nagoya Protocol was signed by many countries, the European Parliament ultimately deemed the so-called "invention" of "Cupulate" to be "insufficient."

 

Together with the Cupuaçu sweets made by local women as well as festival activities and concerts, Amazon's most popular festival attracted over 200,000 visitors in 2022.

Through this event, the ‘Presidente Figueiredo’ community was able to generate approximately €2 million in revenue - a miracle for a small town in the jungle. It is hard to imagine how much of these earnings would have had to be paid to Japanese companies by the women without the court rulings based on the Nagoya Protocol.

Patenting of "Digital Sequence Information"(DSI)

and "synthetic biology" of Medicinal Plants 

Research and industry have already taken a futuristic step: the replacement of conventional medicinal plants with "Digital Sequence Information (DSI)" and “synthetic biology”. This works as follows: in the computer laboratory biological systems are designed using natural products as the raw materials, such as those found in Jorgelina's indigenous community of Tamandua. Knowledge about the effects of these components is captured and stored and subsequently the information sequence of the genetic resources of these plants is analyzed. Their DNA, RNA and proteins are examined on computers and then synthetically replicated or modified if necessary. This allows for more precise and cost-effective production of the active ingredients from the plants. This has already been partially implemented with Stevia, vanilla, Artemisia (mugwort) and some other medicinal plants. Industrialized countries want to promote access to Digital Sequence Information (DSI) for politics and science while making genetic resource information freely available on all databases. 

 

Not only are the consumers being deceived, but indigenous communities are also losing their intellectual property rights because such "artificially" produced products are not subject to the Nagoya Protocol. However, there are warning voices from NGOs and researchers calling for regulations to protect medicinal plants as well as the participation and compensation of indigenous communities

© Quote Andreas Riekeberg: Chile-Latin America Research and Documentation Centre.

In the past 20 years genome analysis, DNA synthesis and protein analysis have made enormous progress. More and more sequences of nucleic acids in plant DNA and their amino acids in proteins are being captured. They fill large data storage - DSI from databases with open access – and open up a new field of conflict regarding biopiracy."

This is valid also for cancer research in the age of targeted cancer therapy using designed antibodies. Here the exact status of cancer cells is determined for each individual patient, followed by targeted treatments using specially developed medications based on synthetic biology approaches that include components from indigenous medicinal plants.

(Information can be found on the internet in all international research and govern mental institutions).

The search for such medications has changed significantly since the early 2000s when it was common practice to explore active ingredients directly from original plants collected in nature. These were individually dried according to traditional methods passed down through generations, before selecting the most promising substances for further development.

In Jorgelina's forest there is a tree whose bark is needed for cancer treatments. Its name is currently only known in Guarani and has not been officially published or copyrighted. It probably won't be long before someone finds the tree and publishes its Latin name. However, until there is an officially recognized and legally binding registry of the indigenous Guarani medicinal plants in Jorgelina's forest, the door could be opened to abuse and biopiracy.

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Of course, there will always be cancer patients who desire treatment with the original natural medicinal plant. Admittedly, the quantity of these plants would likely not be sufficient for many patients. In addition, it is also not feasible for everyone to travel to the Amazon rainforest to consult a shaman or visit Jorgelina's mother Elsa in order to obtain fresh plants - although this is currently almost the only way that indigenous herb women can earn money.

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If ever a solution for the "benefit sharing" of their medicinal plants is found, Jorgelina and her mother Elsa could claim their share since their Mby'a-Guaraní community Tamandua has official status.

However, dozens of indigenous communities are still unrecognized;:

Therefore the Mby'a-Guaraní herb women cannot expect compensation for intellectual property rights there. For years they have been applying for an Argentine law that would grant them political recognition. Without official recognition, they cannot expect remuneration for the intellectual property rights of their indigenous medicinal plants.

Anker 1

2024

Biopiracy Treaty - a historical breakthrough?

After decades of negotiations, 190 countries agreed on a new international biopiracy treaty in Geneva in May 2024, which aims to give indigenous peoples more rights. It stipulates that natural genetic resources in medicinal plants and livestock cannot be patented. However, it is possible to patent genetically modified sequences from these natural products.

 

For science, nature is one of the most important sources of remedies. "About 70 per cent of cancer drugs are derived from natural products or synthetic compounds modelled on nature," writes the World Health Organization (WHO

The most important point of the treaty concerns transparency: anyone applying for patents in future must disclose where the genetic resources come from and what traditional knowledge has been incorporated into them. This will allow the countries and indigenous peoples concerned to check whether they are being compensated accordingly.

However, the sanctions for non-compliance are still controversial. The African countries demanded drastic penalties, including the withdrawal of patents, but were unable to prevail against the industrialised countries.

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