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Ethnochemistry and Human Rights

Any effort where drugs, supplements, and other high-value products have been developed as an outgrowth of ethnochemical knowledge should acknowledge the community from which the knowledge originated. This community should receive some form of reciprocal gain. Such reciprocity could be in the form of technology transfer and training, and, in the event that a compound is successfully commercialized, royalty payments. This is a crucial topic that needs to be discussed among chemists. A key point is that recently the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the right to self-determination. We encourage chemists to recognize and defend this right.
See: Chem. Biodivers 2013, 10, 1724-1728.

By Inna Abramova and Alexander Greer
Brooklyn, N.Y.



Human Rights And Indigenous Peoples


Letter to the Editor: In connection with Linda Wang’s “Bridging Cultures” article reporting on the AAAS Science & Human Rights Coalition meeting, I found the meeting to be useful (C&EN, Feb. 13, page 35). But just a few of the 150 participants were chemists. The meeting emphasized that few scientists doing biomedical research consider traditional knowledge as intellectual property (IP) that should be protected and its benefits shared. That pharma sometimes comes into indigenous communities to gain empirical knowledge of decades-old traditional remedies and leaves to do further research and patent it is striking. Topics connecting bioprospecting with protecting IP rights of indigenous groups are by and large absent in ACS journals. One example is aspirin, which came from traditional knowledge as a starting point. Wang’s article mentioned the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 for greater self-determination but did not suggest possible solutions. The declaration may lead to more equitable outcomes with regard to IP, but according to Megan Bang of the University of Washington, many injustices remain institutionalized and invisible. Possible solutions include applying the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice policy, or a nongovernmental organization could conduct negotiations with indigenous groups, with strategies comparable to the fair-trade movement, in which the NGO labels goods as being produced in a way that is both socially and environmentally responsible. No one would argue that protecting the IP rights to medicines associated with indigenous groups is a difficult task, and the cause may need a champion. Chemists could have a role in such a movement. Joshua Rosenthal of the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center described a case 11 years ago, a rare instance where drug discovery researchers tried to include IP rights for local indigenous groups in Chiapas, Mexico. But the arrangement fell apart (disagreements among various group representatives), probably to the misfortune of all involved (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/414685a). Despite this outcome, chemists can embrace such responsibilities, seeking an enlightened view against biopiracy and patents that take indigenous knowledge, and instead seek protection and reciprocity.
See: C&EN (Mar. 26, 2012, 90(13),6)


By Alexander Greer
Brooklyn, N.Y.