Fun_People Archive
2 Nov
Patenting Indigenous People

Date: Thu, 2 Nov 95 19:02:36 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
To: Fun_People
Subject: Patenting Indigenous People

[Apparently (contrary to all reasonable expectations) this is not a hoax...  

Forwarded-by: (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by:  Nariman Batlivala (

"Another major step down the road to the commodification of life"
says Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) Director Pat Mooney.
RAFI moves to take the life patenting issue to the World Court.

Patenting Indigenous People

In an unprecedented move, the United States Government has issued itself a
patent on a foreign citizen.  On March 14, 1995, an indigenous man of the
Hagahai people from Papua New Guinea's remote highlands ceased to own his
genetic material.  While the rest of the world is seeking to protect the
knowledge and resources of indigenous people, the National Institutes of
Health (NIH) is patenting them.  "This patent is another major step down
the road to the commodification of life.  In the days of colonialism,
researchers went after indigenous people's resources and studied their
social organizations and customs.  But now, in biocolonial times, they are
going after the people themsleves" says Pat Roy Mooney, RAFI's Executive
Director, who is at The Hague investigating prospects for a World Court
challenge to the patenting of human genetic material.

The Hagahai, who number a scant 260 persons and only came into consistent
contact with the outside world in 1984, now find their genetic material  -
the very core of their physical identity - the property of the United
States Government.  The same patent application is pending in 19 other
countries.  Though one of the "inventors,"resident in Papua New Guinea,
apparently signed an agreement giving a percentage of any royalties to the
Hagahai, the patent makes no concrete provision for the Hagahai to receive
any compensation for becoming the property of the US Government..  Indeed,
the Hagahai are likely to continue to suffer threats to their very survival
from disease and other health problems brought by outsiders.

RAFI's Jean Christie has recently returned to Australia after consultations
with the governments of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (one of
whose citizens is also subject to claims in a related US Government patent
application).  On her return from Port Moresby and Honiara, Christie said
"This outrageous patent has provoked anger in the Pacific and is a matter
of deep concern worldwide."

In response to 1993 investigations by the Government of the Solomon Islands
and RAFI, NIH's Jonathan Friedlander (Physical Anthropology Program
Director) wrote to the Solomon Islands Ambassador to the United Nations,
allaying their concerns by saying that the patent applications "will likely
be abandoned entirely or not allowed."  Contrary to Friedlander's
indication, in the course of routine research prior to Christie's trip to
the Pacific RAFI discovered that the patent was issued 6 months ago.

Linked to the "Vampire Project"?

The first-ever patent of an indigenous person comes as an international
group of scientists are embarking on the Human Genome Diversity Project
(HGDP), which aims to draw blood and tissue samples from as many indigenous
groups in the world as possible.  While the Hagahai are not specifically
mentioned in the draft "hit list" of the HGDP -- dubbed the "vampire
project" by its opponents worldwide -- it has targeted over 700 indigenous
groups, including 41 from Papua New Guinea, for "sampling" by researchers.
Friedlander, who wrote that the patent application would likely be
withdrawn, participated in the development of the HGDP and was among those
at its founding meeting.  Within weeks of the patent's issue, Friedlander
returned the Pacific on business related to the collection of blood
samples.  At the same time, indigenous people and NGOs from across the
Pacific are working on the implementation of a "Lifeforms Patent-Free
Pacific Treaty."

As recently as last week's UNESCO Bioethics Committee meeting, HGDP
Director Dr. Luca Cavalli-Sforza claimed that the project did not support
the patenting of indigenous peoples' DNA.  In contrast, at the Beijing
Women's Conference, Sami indigenous women from the Nordic countries added
their voice to the dozens of indigenous peoples' organizations that have
denounced the project as a violation of their rights.  "The thin veneer of
the HGDP as an academic, non-commercial exercise has been shattered by the
US government patenting an indigenous person from Papua New Guinea," said
Edward Hammond, Program Officer with RAFI-USA in North Carolina.

The Value of Human DNA: Mining Indigenous Communities for Raw Materials

NIH's patent (US 5,397,696) claims a cell line containing the unmodified
Hagahai DNA and several methods for its use in detecting HTLV-1-related
retroviruses.  The team that patented the cell line is headed by the 1976
Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Dr. D.Carleton Gajdusek.  Recent cases have
concretely demonstrated the economic value of human DNA from remote
populations in the diagnosis and treatment of disease and development of
vaccines.  Blood samples drawn from the asthmatic inhabitants of the remote
South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha were sold by researchers to a
California-based company which in turn sold rights to its as yet unproved
technologies for asthma treatment to German giant Boehringer Ingelheim for
US $70 million.

NIH patent claims on indigenous people's genetic material are pursued
abroad by the National Technical Information Service, a division of the US
Department of Commerce.  Ronald Brown, the US Secretary of Commerce has
left no question as to his interpretation of the controversy, stating
"Under our laws... subject matter relating to human cells is patentable and
there is no provision for considerations relating to the source of the
cells that may be the subject of a patent application."  The Hagahai, and
millions of other indigenous people, in other words, are raw material for
US business.

RAFI believes that this is only the beginning of a dangerous trend toward
the commodification of humanity and the knowledge of indigenous people.
Whether human genetic material or medicinal plants are the target, there is
scarcely a remote rural group in the world that is not being visited by
predatory researchers.  Indigenous people, whose unique identity is in part
reflected in their genes, are prime targets of gene hunters.  Says Leonora
Zalabata of the Arhuaco people of Colombia: "This could be another form of
exploitation, only this time they are using us as raw materials."

RAFI Challenges the Patenting of Human Beings

RAFI has been closely following the patenting of indigenous people since
1993, when pressure from RAFI  and the Guaymi General Congress led to the
withdrawal of a patent application by the US Secretary of Commerce on a
cell line from a Guaymi indigenous woman from Panama.  RAFI is currently
investigating prospects to bring the issue of human patenting to the World
Court at the Hague as well as the Biodiversity Convention and relevant
multilateral bodies.


Pat Mooney, Executive Director          Ottawa, ONT (Canada)    (613) 567-6=
Jean Christie, International Liaison            Queensland, Australia
(61) 79 394-792
Edward Hammond, Program Officer         Pittsboro, NC (USA)
(919) 542-1396

DATE:  4 October 1995

[=] © 1995 Peter Langston []