RIO BRANCO, BRAZIL
The dozen tropical plants growing in dappled sunlight under the thick Amazon canopy hardly look like the focus of a controversy with global impact.
But the plants, part of a modest nursery on a Kaxinawa Indian reserve in southwestern Brazil, stand center stage in a brewing battle over what Brazilians call "biopiracy."
Indians and state officials accuse an Austrian-born Brazilian of using a nonprofit charity, Living Jungle, to trick the Indians of Acre State into sharing their knowledge of plants and their traditional uses. The Indians helped catalog more than 300 species and searched for new ones. With the Kaxinawas' help, Living Jungle began developing a nursery of potentially exportable plants for development by international pharmaceutical companies. Officials further claim that while the potential profits from development of newly discovered plants are huge, the Indians received only a few baseball caps and an occasional box of aspirin as compensation.
In growing numbers, pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies are turning to the Amazon to find the plants, barks, and seeds that might provide tomorrow's medical and beauty products. And officials are responding with measures designed to protect Brazil from the kind of biological theft it has experienced in the past.
Brazilians still have bad memories of perhaps one of the first biopiracy cases. Last century, British interests smuggled rubber tree seeds to Malaysia, ending the Amazon's lucrative monopoly on the rubber trade. Not surprisingly, the Kaxinawa case has sparked substantial interest.
"Our gold, our oil, is our biodiversity," says Edvaldo Magalhes, a state legislator who sponsored Acre's recently approved biopiracy legislation. "But while ... big companies are already heavily involved in developing uses for jungle plants, we are only starting to demand a share of the benefit," he says. "We have to protect our wealth."
Brazil has a congressional investigative commission looking into the issue, and a federal biopiracy law is in the works. Brazil passed a biodiversity law in 1993, but the existing law is very general and lacks regulations.