Albion Monitor /News

Battle Over U.S. Corporations Patenting Amazon Plants

by Danielle Knight

and related article on biopiracy of developing nations
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The patent claims of a U.S. corporation on an Amazonian plant provides evidence that American patenting laws favor big business over the rights of indigenous people, say U.S. rights groups.

The conflict over patents began 12 years ago, when Loren Miller, director of the small California-based International Plant Medicine Corporation, took a sample of a medicinal plant cultivated by an indigenous community in Ecuador -- without permission from anyone.

After he returned to California, Miller obtained a patent from the U.S. government, which gave him exclusive rights to sell and breed new varieties from the plant.

The vine in question is a sacred plant to indigenous groups
U.S. patent law did not require Miller's company to do any breeding or improvement of the plant before the company obtained its monopoly in the United States.

"In order to claim a plant patent under U.S. law, you do not need to be the breeder or the cultivator of a plant in order to obtain intellectual property; what you do need is a pair of scissors, a passport and a backpack," says Edward Hammond, a U.S. researcher with the Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).

The vine in question, Ayahuasca, or Yage, is a sacred plant to indigenous groups in the Amazon basin that has been cultivated throughout the rainforest since the pre-Colombian era for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes.

At the time the patent was granted in 1986, the Ecuador-based Coordinating Body for Indigenous organizations in the Amazon Region (COICA) denounced it, but their protests proved futile. The body represents indigenous peoples of the eight Amazon countries -- Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.

COICA General Coordinator Antonio Jacanamijoy says that Miller "committed an offense against indigenous peoples in the patenting for his benefit of a sacred plant that he himself recognizes to have 'discovered' in the smallholding of an indigenous family.

"We would like to believe that, as the millennium is ending, so the time of paternalism, protection and colonial practices also is coming to an end, but it seems that we commit the sin of optimism," he said. "Commercializing an ingredient of the religious ceremonies and of healing for our people is a real affront for the over four hundred cultures that populate the Amazon basin."

COICA subsequently adopted a major policy resolution, specifically warning indigenous groups that Miller and his company were an "enemy of indigenous peoples," and that "his entrance in any indigenous territory should be prohibited."

COICA also posted a notice on its website that it would not be responsible for any physical harm done to Miller if he went into indigenous territory.

Miller has continued to ignore requests from indigenous groups to give up the patent arguing that he is acting in accordance with U.S. patent law. He says his corporation is currently working on developing psychiatric and cardiac pharmaceutical drugs from the plant.

If Miller decided to market these drugs, under U.S. law, he would need a separate patent, according to RAFI's Hammond. The current patent is only applicable to selling the plant varieties, not engineered drugs, from the plant.

U.S. officials have reacted strongly to the threats against Miller. The U.S. Embassy in Quito, which has provided COICA with financial support and the Inter-American Foundation, a U.S government development assistance agency, has called for a retraction of the COICA resolution.

The Foundation has provided more than $1 million to the indigenous coalition but said it would reconsider future grants.

"We do not represent the private interests of Mr. Miller related to his U.S. patent to develop and commercialize the plant," Adolfo A. Franco, a legal advisor for the Foundation told IPS.

"However, the COICA resolution is abusive and reprehensible, constituting a threat against the security and well-being of Mr. Miller and we cannot support that."

The response from indigenous groups has been equally outraged.

"The dignity of our peoples is highly valued, much more than your $1 million," Jacanamijoy told Franco. "Without listening to our reasons, your organization unconditionally defends the economic interests of Mr. Miller."

Now other groups, including the Washington-based Coalition for the Amazonian Peoples and their Environment, have questioned if the Foundation's request violates the autonomy of indigenous groups.

"The Inter-American Foundation's bullying of indigenous peoples contradicts their mission as a U.S. government agency to support economic development of the poorest sectors in the Americas," said Melina Selverston, director of the coalition.

U.S. plant patent laws, developed in the 1930s, allowed Miller to patent the plant without permission and without changing or breeding the plant
The root of the dispute does not lie with the Foundation or Miller, but with U.S. patenting law, says RAFI's Hammond. "It all boils down to the ludicrousness of these laws."

He notes that "this was not some plant that no one knew about that was hidden in the rainforest and not used by is widely used and cultivated throughout the Amazon and has been selectively bred by indigenous people for centuries."

U.S. plant patent laws, developed in the 1930s, were originally designed to encourage the private sector to increase plant breeding and develop better yielding agricultural crops that had heavier fruit and disease resistance.

That these laws allowed Miller to patent the plant without permission and without changing or breeding the plant, however, proves that they need to be revised to protect the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples, says Hammond.

The attention drawn to these laws and the ayahuasca patent by RAFI, COICA and other groups led to the Ecuadorian government's refusal to sign a bilateral intellectual property agreement with the United States in 1996.

The agreement would have applied similar U.S. patent law to the South American country. Now, the United States is again pressuring Ecuador to sign the agreement by threatening trade sanctions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an agreement that recognizes the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples, which has been ratified by more than 100 nations, including Ecuador.

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Albion Monitor April 6, 1998 (

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