Learning from the Shaman

This chapter has been describing the search for biologically active compounds in living organisms as a process of scientific exploration—bioprospectors are described as "discovering" new compounds from nature. This is the case in Yellowstone's hot springs; chemicals derived from these organisms were probably truly unknown to humans. In the case of many other species, however, people have known of their usefulness for thousands of years. This knowledge is maintained in the traditions of indigenous people in biologically diverse areas, people who use native organisms as medicines, poisons, and foods. In many cultures, the repository of this traditional knowledge is the medicine man or woman. A shaman, as aboriginal healers are often called, can help direct bioprospectors to useful compounds by teaching about their culture's traditional methods of healing. Many of the remedies shamans employ are highly effective against disease. Several bioprospectors have employed a shaman in this manner to increase their chances of finding useful drugs (Figure 3.19).

Figure 3.19 Indigenous knowledge.

This shaman of the Matses people of the Amazon rain forest is collecting plants for use in medicines. His intimate knowledge of the natural world is the product of the long history of his people in this diverse environment.

Figure 3.19 Indigenous knowledge.

This shaman of the Matses people of the Amazon rain forest is collecting plants for use in medicines. His intimate knowledge of the natural world is the product of the long history of his people in this diverse environment.

Using the knowledge of native people in developing countries to discover compounds for use in wealthy, developed countries is highly controversial. This process is often referred to as biopiracy, because organisms and active compounds discovered by traditional healers can be patented in the United States and Europe, and potentially provide enormous financial rewards to the bioprospector but no return to shamans or their people. The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity has sought to alleviate biopiracy by asserting that each country owns the biodiversity within its borders. However, the United States government has not signed this legally binding document, and thus companies in the United States are not required to abide by its terms. Additionally, even when a country makes a bioprospecting agreement with a pharmaceutical firm, it is unlikely that the indigenous community within the country will benefit in any way from a new drug developed from its store of knowledge. In recent times, indigenous peoples have begun to question the ethics of bioprospecting via a shaman, and several proposed agreements between developing countries and pharmaceutical firms have come under criticism.

The bioprospecting agreement between Diversa and Yellowstone National Park has not escaped charges of biopiracy. While Diversa is not relying on information from indigenous people to help them locate valuable organisms, critics have charged that the managers of Yellowstone are essentially "selling off" organisms and chemical compounds that belong to the American public. In addition, they argue that the action of bioprospecting itself will damage the very resource that provides these remarkable discoveries. The federal courts have dismissed lawsuits against Yellowstone National Park and Diversa that address these points according to current law, but the issue remains an ethical dilemma: What is the responsibility of individuals and corporations profiting from biological diversity to the source and survival of that diversity?

Biological diversity represents an enormous resource for humans, but it also comes with an awesome responsibility. The actions of the United States Congress protected Yellowstone National Park and perhaps ultimately enabled the discovery of Thermus aquaticus and Taq polymerase. However, thousands of useful compounds are lost every year through the destruction of native habitat, and the loss of indigenous cultures and their shamans. (See Chapter 14 for details on the current biodiversity crisis.) If all of us are to benefit from the organisms and materials provided by the variety of life, we must approach our relationship with these organisms with care and stewardship (Figure 3.20).

Media Activity 3.3 Bioprospecting in Yellowstone

Figure 3.20 Biodiversity benefits everyone. The abundance of life on our planet provides us with both tangible and intangible benefits.

Figure 3.20 Biodiversity benefits everyone. The abundance of life on our planet provides us with both tangible and intangible benefits.

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