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Bad blood: activists and scientists clash over genome project.

(WINNIPEG) Aboriginal activists are lobbying to restrict genetic research on Indigenous cell lines being conducted as part of the Internatioal Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). Scientists and anthropologists who are part of the HGDP are collecting blood, tissue and hair samples from hundreds of Indigenous populations as part of the largest genetic research project in the world.

Debra Harry, a Northern Paiute activist from Nevada, warned a Winnipeg audience recently of the "potential for manipulation of life, violation of the natural integrity of humans, and commercialization of life forms" resulting from the genetic research on Indigenous people.

Referred to by critics as The Vampire Project, the HGDP's mandate includes storing the DNA of disappearing Indigenous populations for future study, reconstructing the history of the world's populations, and determining the origins of existing populations. Once blood samples are stored in gene banks, however, unlimited amounts of DNA can be generated for unlimited experiments.

Pharmaceutical companies are eagerly waiting to profit from the sale of drugs, vaccines or treatments for diseases that might be made from Indigenous cell lines.

Harry told a University of Manitoba Engineering class on Aboriginal People, Science and the Environment, that the HGDP is "a new wave of colonialism at the molecular level. They've taken our land and water resources, now they want to mine our genetic resources."

The U.S. government has already filed three patents for the cell lines of Indigenous people from the Solomon Islands, Panama, and Papua New Guinea. International protests, concerns about the invasion of sovereignty of Indigenous nations, and lack of informed consent led to the withdrawal of two patents. However, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce has refused to return genetic samples to the Solomon Islands, stating that the source of genetic samples is not legally relevant under existing patent laws.

In March, 1995, the U.S. government obtained a patent for the cell line of a Hagahai man of Papua New Guinea, which gives the U.S. exclusive property rights over "inventions" made from Hagahai cell lines over the next 17-20 years. The 260 member Hagahai Nation only came into consistent contact with the outside world 12 years ago, but they've been catapulted into the genetic age to fight for their survival against new diseases.

Harry, part of the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network, says that patents should not be extended over life forms. She adds that many Indigenous people are opposed to Western science that manipulates the natural world order through genetic technology and discounts Indigenous knowledge and respect for the interrelatedness of life systems.

Indigenous groups fear that there will not be proper informed consent or respect for the rights of subjects. It is also unlikely that potential misuse and profit-making on gene patents would be explained. Harry fears that the project will be promoted as the answer for finding cures for common diseases, even though the HGDP is not mandated to do medical research. Indigenous groups could also be coerced into exchanging their blood for medical services or some other form of payment. There's also the unspoken danger that genetic information could be used against Indigenous people in a form of biological warfare. It could be as simple as the technology that allowed blankets infested with diseases to find their way into Indigenous tribes, thereby paving the way for European settlers in North America.

A Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere opposed to the HGDP includes groups from Panama, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The growing movement opposed to `bio-piracy' includes women concerned about new reproductive technology, agricultural and environmental groups concerned about corporate monopolies on patenting of plant life, and a growing number of Indigenous nations.

North American groups include the En'owkin Centre in B.C., the Indigenous Peoples Support Network in London, Ontario, the Indigenous Women's Network based in Colorado, and the Indigenous Environmental Network based in Minnesota. The Blue Mountain Coalition includes many Canadian groups such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), The Canadian Environmental Law Association, Cultural Survival Canada, The Feminist Alliance on New Reproductive and Genetic Technology.

Harry says governments must restrict patents on life forms, cut off funding to the HGDP, and pressure the United Nations to develop international policies and conventions to protect all life forms from genetic manipulation and destruction.

Elizabeth Abergel from the Feminist Alliance on New Reproductive Technology adds "the trend toward patenting life forms makes life into a commodity" that can be manipulated by those in power. She sees women as especially vulnerable because most genetic tests are done on women, who are losing reproductive autonomy in response to the dictates of what genetic researchers believe is "normal" or "valuable" in human beings.

Canada does not patent life forms except for plants and uni-cellular organisms. However, there is currently a national review of the patent system in response to a patent request for the Oncomouse, a mouse with human genes used in cancer testing. The patent was rejected once but, if the appeal is approved, this case could open up the Canadian courts to patents on human life forms.
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Author:Fiona Muldrew
Publication:Herizons
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:847
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