Likened to the discovery of gold nuggets that sparked the American’s gold rush at Sutter’s Mill, in Sacramento, California in 1848, green gold rush or bio-piracy took root during the colonization period that occurred worldwide.
Between 1271 and 1295, hundreds of explorers have apparently blood-stained their hands by pillaging indigenous villages and looting these of their natural resources.
An example during such a period was Marco Polo, who despite history having bestowed niceties about him, was recorded to have transported to the west plant spice species and seeds grown only in the east. That era was called the spice trade in medieval Europe.
Today, these bio-pirates are not after gold. They may not be the swashbuckling pirates of old with their curved swords but just the same, they are on the loose for life, equally determined and cold-blooded in their desire to stalk for biological information. They are the hunters of genes.
In his study, “The Protection of the Indigenous Knowledge of the Indigenous People,” Atty. Brenner Bengwayan, secretary of the Sangguniang Panglunsod of Baguio City, noted how indigenous plants became victims of colonial mentality.
In the 1987 Conference on Genetics Resources, Manila, one of the speakers, Pat Mooney, who dedicated his life advocating for genetic conservation and biodiversity, explained during that time of the “history of colonialism of plants,” and cited for example how 94-95 percent of the world’s most important plant breeding materials used by the North came directly from the South.
Unfortunately, indigenous communities are seldom compensated for commercial use of their varied medicinal plants derived from generations of accumulating and enrichment of knowledge.
Even if a traditional community would have wanted to seek recourse, using the avenues of Western legal system is frustrating.
Nowadays, traditional knowledge on plants has become an exploitable source of wealth and determined by the control that can be established over them.
Even traditional songs, designs and garments are not spared by commercialization.
A clear example of such a case came to the fore last year regarding the improper use of the Cordillera G-string or bahag. The Metropolitan Theatre, Manila, in celebration of its supposed 50th anniversary of national artists inappropriately used the bahag in its show, “Alay nina Alice at Agnes.”
In the first part of the show, it showed a female performer wearing a bahag instead of a “tapis.” It immediately caused an outrage to the indigenous people in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
The inappropriate wearing of the Cordilleran G-string has prompted the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) and the Baguio City Council chewed out the organizers for their incapacity to understand Cordilleran tradition and culture.
A resolution authored by city councilor Fred Bagbagen and approved by the city council said, among others: “the provocative performance has not only failed to truly express its correct theme and promote appreciation and information on unique culture of its subject but has also ridiculed and made fun of the traditional attire of the indigenous people of the Cordillera.”
“The discriminatory profiling of the traditional attire and highland culture of the indigenous people of the Cordillera has become repetitious by imprudent and inconsiderate people who never bother to conduct a thorough research on the history of the Bahag and do not consult indigenous communities on how the traditional attire is fittingly used,” the resolution further stated.
On the other hand, local people’s traditional knowledge about the properties of a particular plant is being picked apart until its cultural integrity becomes eroded.
A clear example cited by the study was: how in the world did an international French fashion house corporation named Ives St. Laurent of France patented the scents and by-products of Ilang-ilang, (scientific name Cananga odorata) when Ilang-ilang is native only to the Philippines?
Such happening is seriously disturbing considering Bengwayan posing this food for thought: “How could a plant endemic or found only in the Philippines be owned by a foreign company?” Its patent for its perfume formula was based on the Philippine specie, Ilang-ilang.
Bengwayan traced how Ives St. Laurent has been importing Ilang-ilang flowers from the Philippines for more than 20 years, abruptly stopped, then built its own Ilang-ilang plantation in Africa.
An underlying question remains: “How did it acquire the Ilang-ilang seeds used for its plantation?”
In indigenous medicine, tribal folks have long used oil of Ilang-ilang for a variety of infectious and skin diseases, acne and scalp troubles.
Another Japanese multi-corporation named Itoen KK has patented the diabetic property of a plant known in the Cordillera as “Banaba,” Bengwayan reveals. Banaba has long been used by indigenous tribes to treat fever, diabetes and as purgative and stimulant.
A native variety of tomatoes known to resist cold weather conditions and can grow only in Benguet and other cold areas in Cordillera is also suspected to have been patented by an unnamed company in the United States.
Another Japanese company was revealed by the Department of Health (DOH) to have patented the anti-stress property of the “saluyot” or jute. DOH pointed out Japan has funded the put up of a processing plant for the saluyot into powdered and tablet form medicine for commercial production.
There are even Japanese companies who unashamedly claim patents of the takip kuhol, lagundi and sambong, even knowing fully well that lagundi and sambong have already been made into medicines by DOH.
Absurd as it may seem, but the Nata de coco, a traditional dessert of Filipinos made with fermented coconut water, was patented by a Japanese firm, Bengwayan reveals.
Nonsensical also is the claim of the United States National Institute of Health, the US Army and the New York University to claim that “Ampalaya,” one main ingredient in Filipino pinakbet, is their property. They have patented ampalaya for its anti-HIV property.
And more preposterous is about a variety of “kintoman” rice grown in Benguet and which is made into the traditional drink “Tapey” is now the property of a multi-corporation from the West. “Hence, if the local folks (I-Benguet or I-Cordilleran) want to make their traditional drink, they would have to buy it from said company,” Bengwayan ruefully grates.
Another is a variety of rice from Sumadel, Mountain Province which has been crossbred with an Indonesian rice variety to develop pest resistant quality. Neither the Philippine and Indonesian governments have been compensated for such a discovery.
In Isabela province, Abelardo Cruz of the Northern Sierra Madre Wilderness Foundation revealed how dwarf coniferous (cone-bearing) trees have been smuggled out from a 70,000 hectares of protected Bonsai forest. The trees are being sold for its unverified effect on sexual potency.
More disturbing was how bio-pirates not only crave for plant genome but for human genes as well. The Ayangan tribe in Ifugao, the Agta tribe in Quirino and Zambales were victims of their blood, nail and hairs sampled by scientists under the smokescreen of “so-so medical missions and other help-a-hand” oriented endeavors.
“They have been targeted for their disease-resistant attributes such that the Agta have seemed to be immune from digestive tract ailments such as diarrhea,” Bengwayan says.
The study also reminds of the time in 1993 when a drug firm, Hoffman-La Roche, in cahoots with a Hawaii-based Aloha Medical Mission, covertly collected gene samples of the Agta just after eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
They exploited the plight of the displaced, sick and hungry Agta due to the eruption; the Agta welcomed the medical mission, unknowing it led to collection of their genes, Bengwayan describes.
In 1993, two American researchers traveled to Mount Pulag, In Cordillera, the Philippines second highest mountain and stole specimens of the shrub “Taxus Sumatrana,” a mountain yew known only to grow at Mount Pulag.
Taxus Sumatrana has the property “Taxol,” and is known as an anti-cancer agent.
These researchers, named Dr. Melvin Shemluck of Quinsigamond College, in Worcester, Massachusetts and Robert Nicholson of Northampton, also in Massachusetts, USA, blindsided the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Cordillera Administrative Region (DENR-CAR) by pretending, in a handwritten request, to ask permission to analyze Taxus Sumatrana and present their findings back to DENR.
So DENR granted them a “gratuitous permit” to do so. The permit grants individuals the conduct of educational or research purposes.
Instead, the researchers, along with species of the yew plant they uprooted, (as discovered later by DENR-CAR) surreptitiously got out from Mount Pulag by not going back the same route leading to the DENR Ambangeg Ranger Station.
During that time, Sandra Buking, research specialist of DENR-CAR made repeated requests from the researchers as to their findings but the researchers never answered DENR-CAR, Bengwayan notes.
Indigenous Cordillera tribe folks are not that selfish, and would readily share their knowledge on plants provided they are fully informed how it is going to be used and if it needs to be compensated legally, it must be done and the knowledge they impart must be fully acknowledged, Bengwayan concludes.