Biopiracy or bioprospecting is the practice of profiting off the indigenous knowledge of nature without compensation, permission or recognition of indigenous peoples. Bioprospectors will study indigenous knowledge of medicinal and spiritual plants to later commercialize their newly found knowledge. The practice of biopiracy is an attack on the intellectual property of indigenous knowledge and is inextricably linked to U.S. patent law. The Plant Patent Act of the 1930s, the Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970, and the Diamond v. Chakrabarty court case of 1980 have all contributed to the freedome to patent plants. The US Patent and Trademark office claims that once you successfully patent a plant, you have:
“ [the] right to exclude others from asexually reproducing the plant, and from using, offering for sale, or selling the plant so reproduced, or any of its parts, throughout the United States, or from importing the plant so reproduced, or any part thereof, into the United States.”
Before it developed international reputation as ecotourist activity of potent spiritual psychoactive taken under the guidance of a shaman, ayahuasca was an integral part of Amazonian indigenous communities. Ceremonies using the sacred plant were employed to treat illnesses and to train future shamans. In 1986, an American scientist, Loren Miller, patented the vine successfully, claiming it had been “newly discovered” and he gave it the unfortunate name: “Da Vine”. The Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and their Environment, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basic, and the Centre for International Environmental Law teamed up to fight the patent, claiming it was surely not a new discovery but more importantly, that the US had failed to acknowledge the intellectual property of the indigenous community. Intellectual property that is linked to their heritage and history. In 1999, the patent was removed and 2001, it was reinstated with new evidence submitted by Miller without the possibility for objections. The patent for “Da Vine” expired in 2003 and ayahuasca can now be commercially cultivated.
This is just one drop in the ocean of biopiracy that threatens indigenous communities and their knowledge. Other examples of biopiracy include Peruvian maca, neem, turmeric, tamarind, and rosy periwinkle. One could argue almost every plant that has been patented and/or commercialized for use in a bioregion not native to that specific plant is a result of biopiracy. This line is hazy to me. As a person of a certain color or ethnicity, is there a responsibility to only practice and sell plant medicines within your own heritage? It’s a difficult question to answer. Regrettably, I do suspect that the growing consumer demand for alternative and complementary healthcare will most likely increase biopiracy in the global community, particularly without proper regulations to safeguard indigenous intellectual knowledge.