Ethics of Biopiracy

Biopiracy in the Amazon

While a focus on colonization has faded from the agendas of most countries, economic globalization has taken its place, largely fueled by the capitalist international trade system. Countries, and more recently corporations, now expand into the global market by establishing themselves as economic powerhouses, often at the expense of other countries or peoples. The methods of globalization range from economic incentives, to subtle exploitation of resources; the most damaging effects often result from the latter method. The product of biological exploitation has been a distinct and detrimental marginalization of many countries and their indigenous peoples for the sake of profit. Through this paper, I examine the business practices of countries and corporations operating in the Brazilian Amazon with respect to their use of biological resources, with some mention of Brazilian anti biopiracy efforts. The paper analyzes how the end results of a company’s endeavors are often not at fault; rather, I show how the means by which they develop their products constitute unethical business practices. I seek to provide substantive evidence demonstrating a pattern of unethical behavior carried out by corporate businesses profiting from biological resources, which ultimately culminates in the marginalization of the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian region from whom the resources are exploited.

In order to properly analyze the ethics of business practices in Brazil, it is first necessary to become acquainted with the terminology applicable to the issue. Two schools of thought exist on the topic, roughly falling under the terms “bioprospecting” and “biopiracy.” While the latter term immediately evokes a negative connotation, the former is inherently flawed as well. Biopiracy is the unregulated patenting of indigenous knowledge obtained unethically, which removes indigenous rights. It involves the transfer of intellectual property rights from indigenous groups to corporations. Bioprospecting is a term intended to bridge the gap between “global commercial interests” and the knowledge of indigenous peoples, as well as a means to respond to the “epidemic of biopiracy” (Shiva, 2007). Bioprospecting is a term stemming from the exploration for mineral wealth; yet while mineral wealth remains useless unless exploited for commercial gain, biological resources provide life-sustaining value to the indigenous peoples who cultivate them, regardless of their monetary value on the global market (Shiva, 2007). Thus, Shiva argues biopiracy is a more appropriate term to group all exploitation of biological resources under, given the damage posed to indigenous peoples by both methods. Biopiracy ultimately results in the theft of “collective innovation” generated over a period of many generations by indigenous peoples (Shiva, 2007).  Shiva argues the pure intent of bioprospecting is ultimately disregarded when put into practice, ultimately resulting in little more than “sophisticated biopiracy” (2007). Corporations are unable, or as is more often the case unwilling, to abide by practices which protect indigenous peoples. Thus, for the duration of the paper, the term “biopiracy” will be used solely given that it is a more accurate depiction of the types of business practices implemented by corporations in the current global marketplace. Although biopiracy is generally, and understandably, viewed negatively, the products of such unethical practices are usually beneficial to society as a whole.

Critiques against biopiracy focus on the methods utilized to cultivate biological resources, rather than the results of such practices. Thus, critics berate corporations and individuals who exploit indigenous groups for profit; however, the products of such methods, namely pharmaceuticals, are not necessarily perceived in the same manner given that they have the potential to cure ailments and diseases. Although pharmaceutical products are intended to help the sick, they are produced with a profit-motivated mindset. The ethical debate over biopiracy therefore stems not from the results of biopiracy, but from its methods. Forbes estimates the cost of producing a single drug, from research and development through human drug trials and marketing, at a cost of approximately $5.2 billion, on average (2013). However, the capacity for producing new synthetic chemicals in scientific research labs is dwarfed by the magnitude of biodiversity of the plants found in countries like Brazil (Dalevi, 1997). The complexity of nature is therefore an ideal avenue for the streamlined production of new products. Thus, corporations often seek to profit off the labor of indigenous groups, rather than perform their own research and development. An estimated seventy-five percent of current plant-derived pharmaceuticals were initially synthesized using information obtained from indigenous peoples (Shand, 2009). Given the nature of the global market, namely its relatively free market status aimed at maximizing profits, it is not surprising that corporations seek shortcuts in their efforts to produce new drugs, thereby reducing cost. However, the nature of such a business model inherently results in an exploitative system in which the indigenous peoples from whom the biological information is obtained are ultimately marginalized and cut out of the profit model.

Corporations cannot be criticized for attempting to maximize profits; however, they can be scrutinized for not upholding ethical business practices when dealing with the indigenous peoples from whom many of their products are derived; current practices directly conflict with ethical standards of business. One argument against biopiracy lies in the practice of patenting biological and genetic materials obtained from indigenous peoples. In order to profit without fear of rival companies stealing a product, corporations must patent their findings. However, the concept of patenting biological processes is an inherent contradiction to the traditional meaning applied to patents. Patents are issued to protect “human inventions;” however, biological systems isolated from plants are inherently not “human inventions,” but rather human discoveries (Shand, 2009). No novelty exists in utilizing and attempting to patent a process developed by indigenous peoples. Knowledge that has been developed over thousands of years by indigenous peoples is not an invention, but rather an integral aspect of indigenous peoples’ cultures. Thus, it is somewhat misleading and unfair to allow corporations to hold intellectual property rights over biological systems. Yet as a result of a Supreme Court ruling in the United States case of Diamond v. Charkabarty in 1980, nearly all genetic material is now patentable, at least under United States jurisdiction (Shand, 2009). The United States often sets precedents in cases of similar natures. Yet the issue of patenting biological materials is two-fold; in addition to the apparent paradoxical nature of the patent itself is the set of restrictions that apply to the patented materials, namely which groups are licensed to use and reproduce them. The treatment of patent rights constitutes an ethical breach given the limitations placed on the use of the patented products with respect to the sources of the products, specifically the indigenous peoples.

Current patent laws systematically marginalize indigenous peoples due to the restrictions placed upon patented biological resources. The laws only provide financial gain for the patent holder; associate parties such as tissue donors and indigenous groups who contribute the requisite knowledge to the patent holder are excluded from any legal or financial gain (Richard and Knoppers, 2009).  Many biotechnological products are derived from the labor of many generations worth of farmers and indigenous peoples. These native residents cultivated plants, selectively breeding them to produce optimal crops (Mahop, 2010).  Extensive experimentation lead to the discovery of obscure uses for many Amazonian plants. The knowledge is then passed down orally through generations of shaman (Dalevi, 1997). Pharmaceutical companies take the plants, learn of their uses in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and then use them to generate profitable medicines. As stated previously, the ethical flaw in the business model of the pharmaceutical corporations is not in their use of resources, but rather in how they obtain and protect the resource from competition. The uses for the plants, which eventually become pharmaceutical drugs, are only known as a result of extensive experimentation by generations of native peoples. While the exploitation of biological resources appears to be a recent development as a result of the global capitalist system, it actually stems from the mercantile system of trade popularized in the 16th century by New World colonizers from Europe.

The issue of biopiracy in Brazil is not a recent or even developing issue for the region. The first known instance of biopiracy in Brazil occurred shortly after the “discovery” of Brazil by Portuguese colonizers in the 1500s. Traders stole the secret of extracting a valuable red pigment from Brazil wood and proceeded to commercialize the process. A subsequent effect of this commercialization resulted in the near extinction of the plant. It is currently only preserved in a select few botanical gardens. Perhaps the most well known case of biopiracy occurred during the late 19th century when valuable rubber tree seeds were smuggled from Brazil to Malaysian plantations by an Englishman in the employment of a British firm. The competition from the cheaply and rapidly produced Malaysian product eventually forced the collapse of the Brazilian rubber economy (Robbins, 2007). Thus, Brazil has demonstrated a history of systematic biological exploitation by foreign powers and corporations. The biopiracy acts committed against Brazilian peoples have led to the exploitation of indigenous knowledge numerous times.

The number of biological products exploited from the plants of the Amazon is seemingly endless. Salagen, a medicine sold to treat a disease known as dry mouth syndrome, utilizes a substance extracted from a native Northeastern Brazilian plant known as the jaborandi. An American lab spent considerable time and effort researching the properties of the jaborandi plant rather than merely learning what the word “jaborandi” means in the language of the Tupi-Guarani tribe from which the plant was taken. The literal translation of “jaborandi” is “slobber-mouth plant,” and it has been used to induce salvation by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. The same plant is also the source of treatments for arthritis, lung inflammation, and baldness prevention (Dalevi, 1997). The indigenous peoples of the region have identified the properties of the jaborandi plant, along with countless others. However, corporations such as Merck Laboratory have taken the plant upon learning of its properties and used it for profit, without providing any compensation to the indigenous peoples (Dalevi, 1997). The Brazilian cupuaçu produces a fruit from which a healthy alternative to cocoa can be extracted. Companies who use the cupuaçu however, do not consult or compensate the indigenous peoples who identified its properties (Mahop, 2010). In addition to plant materials, corporations have recently started to invest in human genetic material. The DNA of Brazilian Indians from the Karitiana and Surui tribes in the state of Rondonia is available for as little as $500 to accredited research laboratories (Dalevi, 1997). While the biological wealth of the Brazilian Amazon is inarguably abundant and could potentially serve as the source of much wealth, it should not be at the expense of indigenous peoples. This list of biopiracy examples committed is nowhere near exhaustive, but merely attempts to exhibit a few of the acts of biological theft committed in the region. A predominant concern associated with the theft of indigenous knowledge involves the lack of compensation, but also the manner in which the resulting products are marketed.

Biological patent rights are designed primarily to protect corporations, rather than the indigenous peoples who contribute the majority of the patent knowledge. In addition to not being compensated for their knowledge, the indigenous peoples are forced to pay royalties on the products they had an integral part in creating. Patent laws force indigenous peoples to buy farming seeds each year, rather than simply replanting seeds and thereby minimizing monetary cost. Seeds are often implanted with an aptly named “terminator” gene, which destroys the regenerative properties of plants and thereby renders the crop useless for future use. In addition, many corporations randomly test farmer’s fields to ensure that the farmers are using legal forms of seeds (Shand, 2009). Given that many indigenous peoples do not have significant amounts of monetary wealth, they largely rely on their material wealth, namely the resources pulled from the environment. However, biopiracy strips these communities of their material wealth by transferring the rights to the environment into the hands of the patent holder. As a result, the communities must spend what little monetary wealth they have in order to procure the rights to products which are rightfully theirs (Shiva, 2007). The manner in which corporations patent and market their products constitutes an ethical breach given the manner in which it disenfranchises indigenous groups.

An appropriate business model would incorporate financial compensation to the indigenous peoples from which knowledge is obtained, or, at the very least, exempt them from paying royalties on their own products. Shiva argues that a realistic, fair biopiracy model would be one in which informed consent is received from all indigenous communities in a region. Many corporations only consult with a few indigenous groups and pay them small, insignificant, monetary compensations for their roles. Yet indigenous groups are numerous and intricately interconnected. The actions of one group can and usually do reverberate through a community; thus, neighboring groups are negatively impacted when they are suddenly forced to pay royalties on items they have used for thousands of years (Shiva, 2007). Although corporations often seek a “means to an end,” they should instead treat all persons, indigenous or otherwise, involved in the development of product as “ends in themselves, and never as means only” (Rowan, 1998, Pg. 101).

Rowan has developed a theory of the medical concept of “informed consent” as it applies to business, which properly incorporates all parties of a business into a profit model (1998). The primary factor necessary to facilitate such a model is a system in which indigenous peoples receive all pertinent information prior to providing assistance to corporations. Current methods result in indigenous peoples entering into business with neither legal representation nor a complete understanding of the property rights process, thus culminating in the eventual loss of control over their own products. Indigenous groups are manipulated by corporations for the sake of profit. In addition to a lack of informed consent from indigenous peoples, corporations often enter countries under false pretenses. Scientific and missionary expeditions, in reality corporate missions, enter Brazil to investigate new products (Dalevi, 1997). Such processes therefore constitute further ethical breaches given that their use of the indigenous peoples’ knowledge is a result of the manipulation of a society by withholding critical information. In order to properly implement Rowan’s business theory, indigenous groups need to provide for themselves, or be provided, legal counsel. In practice, such an undertaking poses a number of logistical issues. The primary difficulty, unifying the thousands of indigenous groups who would be affected by the use of biological resources in the region under a singular legal counsel, would be difficult, if not impossible. An alternative and more viable solution would place the Brazilian government in charge of regulating biopiracy.

Recent moves have been made by the Brazilian government to slowly begin combatting unethical biological exploration of the Amazon. A natural resources commission in Brazil fined thirty-five companies for their role in the exploitation of the biodiversity in the country on July 6th, 2012. Many of the corporations were fined on the basis of either failing to share profits with the indigenous peoples of the region, or for false claims that they had in fact shared profits. Brazil’s national biodiversity law requires profit sharing from biodiversity to include financial compensation, as well as training for the indigenous peoples from which a specific resource has been taken. However, biopiracy has to yet be declared as a crime in Brazil, despite a growing effort from lawmakers. The rights of indigenous peoples are recognized on the most basic of levels, but no infrastructure is present to properly protect them. Political gridlock has hindered any significant beneficial legislation to pass through the legislative body, which would provide assistance to indigenous groups. The thirty-five aforementioned corporations were fined, in total, a mere $44 million (de Oliveira Andrade, 2012).  In comparison to the vast net value of the products supplied by the indigenous peoples, the indigenous peoples’ received compensation is almost insulting. The Brazilian legislature has thus far been unable to sufficiently protect the rights of indigenous peoples because of political infighting. Thus, while the rights of indigenous peoples are recognized, no legislation exists to protect said rights. The requisite infrastructure to provide substantive defense of the rights to the indigenous peoples is simply not present in Brazil. As a result, the political oversight necessary to enforce business regulations on international corporations is so insignificant as to not exist. The government fails to properly prosecute the ethical breaches committed by corporations seeking to maximize profit from pharmaceuticals, which ultimately disenfranchises an entire class of people.

The systematic repression of indigenous groups is detrimental not just to their current status, but also to the longevity of their cultures. The groups’ subsistence is dependent on their ability to function in the modern world. However, the business practices of many corporations establish indigenous groups as second-class citizens, despite their vast knowledge. The primary fault with the current business model used by corporations in the pursuit of new pharmaceuticals is their business practices, not their results. Pharmaceutical drugs are developed with the intent to provide medical assistance to the ill, a task which few can argue is detrimental. However, too often pharmaceutical drugs are a product of opportunity and convenience, of exploitation and manipulation. The capitalist mindset of corporations forces them to seek profit rather than uphold ethical business practices. Corporations abuse and deceive indigenous peoples in order to produce optimal profits. Rather than operate in a responsible manner, businesses circumvent the admittedly and disappointedly minimal regulations imposed by the Brazilian government. Indigenous peoples are consistently removed from profit models and receive little to no financial compensation for their considerable and invaluable roles in developing new pharmaceutical drugs. In addition, corporations often further insult indigenous groups by marketing their products back to indigenous peoples, thereby forcing indigenous groups to pay for the products they help to develop. If corporations abided by the “informed consent” system proposed by Rowan, indigenous groups would be afforded some level of security over their information. Given that many corporations are unwilling to voluntarily abide by ethical, or at least fair, standards, government oversight is necessary. Without some kind of regulation, corporations can and do take advantage of indigenous groups and their knowledge. Brazil is dominated by unregulated corporations whose profit models promote biopiracy and consequently unethical business practices, ultimately marginalizing indigenous peoples.












Works Cited

Dalevi, Alessandra. “Green Piracy.” Brazzil. no. 139 (1997).     (accessed November 5, 2013).


Gold, E. Richard and Bartha Maria Knoppers. Biotechnology IP & Ethics. Canada: LexisNexis      Canada Inc., 2009.


Herper, Matthew. Forbes, “The Cost of Creating a New Drug Now $5 Billion, Pushing Big     Pharma To Change.” Last modified August 11, 2013. Accessed November 5, 2013.            cost-of-inventing-new-drugs-is-shaping-the-future-of-medicine/.


Mahop, Marcelin Tonye. Intellectual Property, Community Rights and Human Rights. New     York, NY: Routledge, 2010.


de Oliveira Andrade, Rodrigo. SciDevNet, “SciDevNet.” Last modified July 20, 2012.  Accessed November 5, 2013.


Robbins, Paul. Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, 1st ed., s.v. “Amazon River Basin.” New York: SAGE Publications, Inc. 2007.    ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info %3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF8&rfr_id=info:sid/ summon m&rft.title=Encyclopedia+of+Environment+and+Society&rft.atitle=Biopiracy& &rft.isbn=978141292 7611&rftvolume= 1&rft.spage=129&rft.epage=130&rft.externalDocID=26607 00097&paramdict=en-US (accessed October 20, 2013).


Rowan, John. “Informed Consent as an Ethical Principle for Business.” Business &Professional Ethics Journal. no. 1 (1998): 95-111.


Shand, Hope. “Patenting the Planet.” Multinational Monitor Academic OneFile. (2009).               &it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=184ea72226b48455032b82cb43fda267.


Shiva, Vandana. “Bioprospecting as Sophisticated Biopiracy,” Chicago Journals 32, no.2 (2007). 307-313. Accessed February 28, 2010. doi: 10.1086/508502.

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