GENET archive


4-Patents: Indigenous chiefs from Guayana plan biopiracy law suits

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Indians want patent: Chiefs prepare international law
††††††††suit against scientist who registered indigenous
SOURCE: ISTO… magazine, No. 1581, S„o Paulo, Brazil
††††††††by Luiza Villamea and Max Pinto (photos), with the
††††††††collaboration of Jo„o FŠbio Caminoto in London
††††††††translated by David Hathaway, sent by GRAIN BIO-IPR
DATE:   January 19, 2000

----------------- archive: ------------------

Indians want patent: Chiefs prepare international law suit
against scientist who registered indigenous knowledge

Sand Creek, Guyana

In her village in a far corner of Guyana known as Palm Grove, the
Wapishana Indian Evelyn Gomes keeps a nut called tipir for health
emergencies. According to her people's tradition, the grated
tipir stops hemorrhages and prevents infections, in addition to
being a contraceptive. "The tipir is also abortive. I learned its
use from my mother, who learned from her mother," says Evelyn. On
the other side of the border with Brazil, the Wapishana Leandro
de Castro Pereira holds to the knowledge of his ancestors as he
fishes with neither arrow or net. A resident of the Malacacheta
maloca (or village), near Boa Vista (capital city of Roraima),
Leandro macerates the leaves of a plant called cunani, forms it
into a little pie and throws it into the water. "The fishes go
crazy. They start to jump, and after a while, they die," he says.
"Then, you just catch them and eat them, like our forebears. The
cunani doesn't pollute the water or affect the taste of the

Following litigation between Brazil and Great Britain -- by which
Guyana was once colonized -- the Wapishana were divided by an
arbitrary border in 1904. Because of tipir and cunani, now they
are more united than ever, as they prepare for a battle in
international courts. The Wapishanas are challenging British
chemist Conrad Gorinsky, who registered the property of those
plants as his findings, in European and United States patent
offices. The problem is that, before isolating the plants
components, Gorinsky spent long periods of time among the
Wapishanas, doing research precisely on medicinal plants. "For
many days and nights I was his guide in the jungle," recalls the
Wapishana Ashpur Spencer, 83 years old.

A health agent in Sand Creek, a village that is home to 800
Wapishanas, Louise Randhamil remembers Gorinsky well. "He used to
talk about sharing the outcome of his research projects. What he
has done is absurd, because Picky knows how much we need a
refrigerator and solar energy to store the vaccines," she
complains, referring to the scientist's sister, who also used to
visit the region. Sand Creek's chief, Eugene Andrew, is not
interested in asking for a specific donation from the scientist.
He demands justice. He believes that it is fundamental to
demonstrate that Gorinsky would not have isolated the plant's
components or registered their properties without the help of his
people. "He took the knowledge of our ancestors and wants to sell
it to the industries as if he were the discoverer."

Andrew hosted a delegation of four Brazilian Wapishana chiefs
who, in a recent meeting, had called on their people to bring
suit against Gorinsky's patents. "We are a united people and need
to recover the memory and the knowledge of the elders," Norberto
Cruz da Silva, the delegation leader, affirmed. "The difficulties
we have to overcome just to meet together are nothing compared to
what lies ahead," he said, referring to the difficult access to
the village, which is reached by crossing the wide and wild
Rupununi river, in a region with no bridges. They communicate in
their own language, though the residents in Brazil also speak
Portuguese, and those who live in Guyana speak English. Even the
English-speaking Wapishanas were taken aback as they read copies
of the patents. The wording was obviously inaccessible to these
lay readers.

The first patent granted to the scientist covers the Greenheart
tree (Ocotea rodiaei), which produces tipir. According to his
description, the active ingredient of the plant is an efficient
antipyretic, capable of preventing come-back cases of diseases
such as malaria, and also useful in treating tumors and even the
AIDS virus. The substance was baptized by Gorinsky as rupununine,
a reference to the region's main river. The other active
ingredient registered by the chemist, polyacetylene, was obtained
from the Cunani bush (Clibadium sylvestre). It is prescribed as a
powerful stimulant of the central nervous system, as a
neuromuscular agent capable of reverting cases of heart blockage.

"Every single Wapishana needs to know what is happening," says
Tony James, coordinator of the Amerindian People's Association
(APA), in Georgetown, Guyana's Capital. There are about 16
thousand Wapishanas, 10 thousand of whom live in Guyana. "Many
started pushing for a law suit after the ayahuasca case," he
added, referring to a medicinal drink commonly used by Amazonian
peoples. At the request of indigenous peoples from Ecuador and
Colombia, the United States Patents Office last November revoked
the ayahuasca patent, which had been granted to an American

Together with the Brazilian chiefs who went to Guyana, Tony James
was one of the signatories of a petition sent by the Wapishanas
to Senator Marina Silva (PT-Acre), in which they asked her to
help them challenge the patents on rupununines and
polyacetylenes. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity,
signed in 1992 by 144 Countries in Rio de Janeiro, when products
are obtained from traditional knowledge, their origin must be
recognized, and part of the royalties should be reserved for the
community which holds the information. Since then, the
Philippines, Costa Rica and the countries of the Andean Pact --
Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela -- have adopted
laws to control access to genetic resources. In Brazil, Senator
Marina Silva is the author of a bill that regulates the matter.
"We are an auxiliary force, though we will collaborate as much as
we can to mobilize institutional support," Marina assures.

At least one institution has already responded to this appeal:
the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), represented in Sand Creek by
lawyer Gisela de Alencar, an environmental law specialist. "This
is a model case, because Gorinsky has stated in the text of both
patents that the Wapishanas used those plants," Gisela affirms.
Informed by ISTO… about the suit to be filed, Gorinsky, 63,
insisted that rupununines and polyacetylenes are his discoveries.
"I have dedicated my life to this work. I have registered
specific components that had not been decoded. I have made all
the intellectual effort, and spent thousands of dollars from my
own pocket. Would the Indians ever invest in this?," reacted the
scientist, highlighting that the substances have not yet been
marketed. "But no one can take a patent away from the inventor.
We can't talk about how to share the pie if there's no pie," adds
Gorinsky, the son of a Polish father who settled in Guyana after
meeting his mother, the daughter of Atorai Indians.

All the countries in which Gorinsky has taken out patents are
signatories to the Biodiversity Convention except for the United
States, which has not yet ratified the accord. Because of this,
the law suit might begin in Europe, through Portugal, due to its
cooperation treaties with Brazil, to be judged afterwards by the
Court of Luxembourg, the European forum responsible for such

In February, the Wapishanas will meet in Boa Vista to discuss
strategies for action, at the General Assembly of the Indigenous
Council of Roraima (CIR). "We will alert the other peoples about
the need to preserve their knowledge," says Chief Norberto.
Meanwhile, Chief Andrew has revoked some ancient rules of
hospitality. The entry of researchers is forbidden in Sand Creek.


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