Indigenous People Fear
Genetic Slavery
by Silvio Hernandez

PANAMA CITY, Dec 17 (IPS) - The lack of protection for the human and cultural rights of the indigenous Central Americans has awoken their fears of being submitted to genetic slavery by unscrupulous scientists.

The first alarm was sounded several years ago when the genes of a Panamanian Ngobe-Bugle woman were patented in the United States as a scientific discovery by two US researchers. The woman, resident in the Caribbean province of Bocas del Toro and whose name was reserved to protect her identity, was carrier of the HLV2 virus, similar to that which produces AIDS.

Kuna indigenous leader Atencio Lopez, who has been running an international campaign against the ''stealing'' of genes from native peoples for the last four years, told IPS the genes were taken from the woman by foreign researchers with the help of local doctors who extracted the blood.

The ngobe-bugle are carriers of HLV2 but do not develop the illnesses associated with this as they have antibodies which protect them. Lopez explained that as AIDS ''is like El Dorado'' for the big pharmaceutical transnationals, anything close to the virus which causes this ''makes them crazy and they will stop at nothing to get hold of and control their formulas.''

The patent of the HLV2 virus was cancelled by the US government following international pressure, but the cells of the Ngobe- Bugle woman and other indigenous people from Papua and New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, which were also patented, are still being kept in a US laboratory.

Lopez warned that if the discoveries were part of the production of medicines to alleviate human suffering without making money, the indigenous people would be willing to be investigated. But they do not approve being studied and having genes extracted to produce medicines for the profit of the transnational pharmaceutical companies, nor to experiment with biological weapons ''so that the powerful states can submit the weaker ones.''...

... This type of research, said the document, ''attacks human lives'' and ''the genetic integrity of the indigenous peoples.'' Lopez explained that for the indigenous peoples blood ''is like the nucleus or the cell of the earth'' whose fruits, like the trees, animals and rivers ''are considered as brothers.'' ''If we allow them to delve inside human beings and their genetics there will come a moment when we will be the slaves of other people and subjected to immoral use,'' he said. ''We do not see knowledge as personal property but as something belonging to all our people,'' said Lopez.

As well as the robbing of human genes, researchers in the rich countries ''are extracting medicinal secrets from the indigenous people and their cultural property on seeds and soil use practices, '' he added. He explained how researchers of traditional medicine arrived in the indigenous areas as tourists, finding out how the local people cure certain illnesses, taking the remedies to the North and patenting them as though they were their own inventions. The states of the Third World do not protect the indigenous people and farmers from cultural pillaging and ''many governments see the indigenous peoples' complaints themselves as science fiction,'' he concluded.(END)

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