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Stolen Land, Stolen Medicine: Biopiracy (Part I)

Updated: Mar 3, 2020


Due to the complexity and copious amounts of research on this topic, I have decided to split this blog into multiple parts. This first section will focus on colonialism, defining biopiracy, trade and international laws, and humanitarian and environmental concerns. The next section will focus on agriculture and food sovereignty . The final section will venture into the commodification of Indigenous spiritual practices and ceremonies.


In most history books, colonization is justified as a necessary and inevitable expansion to “new frontiers.” No justification could erase the fact that entire civilizations of people were almost wiped out by outright and insidious acts of conquest. I deliberately did not use the term warfare, because there is no code of ethics in attempted genocide. This concept of one-sided “discovery” still exists. Indigenous people continue to fight for the land, their sovereignty, and are also battling new forms of colonialism and capitalistic corruption that disrupt the natural orders of ecosystems and our society. Land is scarce for the taking, so colonialism has evolved into the continuation of stealing resources in the form of natural and spiritual knowledge from Indigenous people. Our ancestors sacrificed themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually so that future generations could reclaim all that was taken from us.

Indigenous Melanesian boy in traditional canoe on a river in Papua New Guinea. Wix Shuttershock Image.

What is Biopiracy?

Biopiracy or bioprospecting, as it is commonly coded, is the act of stealing Indigenous knowledge of biodiversity for unfair economic gain. Biopiracy can be split into three categories according to research by Daniel F. Robinson: patent-based, non-patent based and misappropriation.

Definition of biopiracy by Dr. Vandana Shiva, Indian scholar and food sovereignty advocate.

Patent-based biopiracy is the act of placing a patent or exclusive ownership on traditional Indigenous logic or knowledge for a period of time. This information is often extracted without authorization or permission. Some developed countries create “bad patents” that do not meet legal and ethical conditions. Patents are designed to encourage market diffusion and generalized commercial availability, and assist in setting a fixed-cost and standard of health safety for consumers.

Non-patent biopiracy entails imposing intellectual property control via plant variety protection or by using deceptive trademarks on traditional knowledge without the right authorization by the intellectual source.

Misappropriation is a third category of biopiracy by which biological resources or traditional knowledge are taken without permission for research and development without adequate sharing of benefits or credit given to the original intellectual source.

In other words, corporations have figured out ways to manipulate trade laws in their favor. The result is one-way capitalistic transactions between Indigenous knowledge keepers and pharmaceutical companies for drug development. It is legal, but not ethical. The question is how can it be legal, without being ethical? Why doesn’t the law reflect society’s moral research standards when it comes to Indigenous intellectual property?

Photo of Mary Lyons, Ojibway Elder sharing wisdom at the Indigenous People's March in January 2019. Photo by Teko Photography.

Because Indigenous-centric knowledge has been considered inferior in the Western paradigm. Western philosophies control the narratives on history, scientific breakthroughs, and discoveries as they have done for centuries. We are not far removed from the era of outright genocide in the name of conquest. This type of exploitation of land and resources continues now under the guise of scientific discovery. Western education and systems have failed to include Indigenous epistemology in curricula, and yet now that there is a market and demand for this knowledge, it is taken without permission or reasonable compensation. A major flaw within the western education paradigm is ego-centrism, which inevitably leads to lack of inclusion of other ways of knowing and therefore large gaps in educational equity.

Research Implications

It is important to note that Western medical research has had great success in creating pharmaceuticals to cure, treat, and prevent a plethora of illnesses within the Western medicine paradigm. In this instance, the issue is that the Indigenous or non-Indigenous local sources of the knowledge that contributed to some of these breakthroughs in medical discovery have not been credited nor have they received adequate sharing of benefits. There is certainly the argument that given the development of multi-drug resistance, cancer, and the increase of occurrence of infectious diseases that there is a sense of urgency to find new treatments for a number of illnesses. However, this does not discount the fact that thus far there has been a lack of ethics when extracting resources and information from Indigenous populations.

Pharmaceutical corporations make billions because of these unauthorized extractions of biological resources and traditional knowledge, and yet there is no benefit sharing with these Indigenous or local communities. A study by Darrel Posey, an ethnobotanist, in 1990 found that pharmaceutical products derived from Indigenous knowledge of plants led to 43 billion dollars in annual profit, despite the fact that less than 0.001% of the profits reach the Indigenous communities that led the researchers to these medical discoveries. The United States Institute of Health states that consulting with Indigenous people about biodiversity doubles the success rate of finding plants with commercially applicable qualities.

Eagle taking flight. Photo by Teko Photography.

These industries exploit the Indigenous-centric ideology that no one can own Nature, and therefore no one can own her medicine. Mother Earth provides for all of us. We respect her, and take only what we need. Industrialists take an excess, and this mindset is wreaking havoc on entire ecosystems. Extracting resources through deforestation destroys habitats and reduces biodiversity. Replying to the supply and demand for these medicines gives incentives to entities destroying these ecosystems.

Indigenous people act as stewards for the land and the environment. They are vital to preserving the biodiversity and overall health of these ecosystems. Indigenous land protectors are being murdered for fighting against large corporations and illegal loggers shredding through their land to colonize and steal resources for capitalistic gain. Paulo Paulino Guajajara was murdered in November 2019 by Amazonian loggers. Paulo was a member of Guardians of the Forest, which is a group of Guajajara who fight illegal activity on the Araribóia reserve, and protect the Awá Guajá tribe, an uncontacted hunter-gatherer tribe. World leaders must come to a consensus on enforcing stricter international policies for acts of violence such as this against the land and the land's protectors.


Valiant efforts have been made to correct the issues that arise from biopiracy. Beginning in 1992, world leaders gathered at the Rio Earth Summit to discuss a plan to institute fair trade and justice between corporations and Indigenous and non-Indigenous local communities that contribute valuable knowledge to the pursuit of medical discovery. Out of this summit emerged the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a legally binding treaty which enumerated three primary aims: biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, and under Article 8(j) the commitment to protect Indigenous knowledge and equitable sharing of benefits with the source-community. In October 2014, the Nagoya Protocol was created under CBD to supplement granting fair and equitable sharing benefits.

However, the United States is one of four nations that has yet to ratify CBD. The National Institute of Health (NIH) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have created ICBG to create fair trade guidelines with Indigenous populations from which resources are extracted, but has failed to resolve the issue that indigenous people are still being sold back patent-protected medicines cultivated based on their knowledge of biological resources through their culture. It is also important to note that fair-trade laws only protect farmers in developing countries, leaving Indigenous populations in developed countries such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand vulnerable to biopiracy.

Domestic parrots. Wix images.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is meeting at the end of this month, February 29th, 2020 in China to discuss progress, set backs, and new amendments to create fair exchange between Indigenous knowledge keepers and corporations using Indigenous knowledge to advance modern science. This committee has yet to strike a balance between conservation using Indigenous epistemology and regulating corporations from destroying the land, sacred sites, poisoning water supplies to benefit their own stock. Society as a whole must take a stand, as Indigenous people have for decades, to boycott and hold these corporations accountable for deliberately harming Mother Earth. It is also important to note that the integrative medicine paradigm is not innocent in wrongfully extracting information and biological resources from Indigenous people and vulnerable developing nations for capitalistic gain.

Coming up next, we'll break down biopiracy in the context of how the patent system affects agriculture and food sovereignty, followed by the commodification of Indigenous spiritual practices.

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