ndigenous Emberá girl in Panama
Credit: Mauricio Ramos
Gene Study Puts Indians on Guard
By María Amparo Lasso
Indigenous peoples in Latin America cast a suspicious eye towards the Genographic Project, which aims to study their genes to determine how their ancestors populated the planet. A U.S.-based NGO is calling for a boycott.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Scientists involved in the Genographic Project will go in search of the genes of indigenous communities worldwide in a bid to decipher the puzzle of how ancient peoples were disseminated around the planet. But their task will not be easy amidst suspicious Latin American Indians.
The National Geographic Society and the multinational computer technology giant IBM set a goal for the five-year gene study to collect around 100,000 human blood samples, to establish a massive genetic database, and to determine prehistoric human migration patterns.
Indians who have lived for centuries in their ancestral lands, like many of the 40 million indigenous peoples living in Latin America, are essential for the success of the project.
Through studies of the DNA of the different indigenous groups, the geneticists can trace lineage, which could help reveal the paths taken by the ancestors of modern humans when they left Africa 60,000 years ago.
It's important to do this ''before the geographic and cultural context are lost in the melting pot,'' says U.S. scientist and explorer Spencer Wells, head of the project launched Apr. 13.
But the field work of Wells, 34, and his teams at 10 centers around the world could be an uphill battle.
Negative experiences in the past, cultural resistance and the influence of global activism against ''biopiracy'' have triggered suspicion among the Indians, who worry about their role in DNA studies, according to Latin American indigenous leaders consulted by Tierramérica.
''They don't even allow their photo to be taken, let alone allowing their blood to be taken,'' says Santiago de la Cruz, Chachi indigenous leader, in reference to the 7,000 members of his community, one of the few aboriginal peoples surviving on the Ecuadorian coast -- and who are of great interest to the geneticists.
De la Cruz's parents agreed in the 1980s to give blood samples for a medical study, the aim of which was never clarified.
''Back then, nobody asked many questions. Today, it's different,'' says De la Cruz, vice-president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), one of the most powerful Indian groups in the Americas.
''I'm not aware of the Genographic Project, (but) if they want to enter our communities, they will have to talk to us first,'' he adds.
Jecinaldo Barbosa Cabral, leader of Indians of the Brazilian Amazon agrees, saying: ''We aren't opposed (to the Genographic Project) out of hand. But if the indigenous community is not aware of it, then there cannot be agreement about it.''
''Imposition, never. We are tired of being fooled,'' he says.
The Genographic Project is just getting under way. Latin American aboriginal groups have not yet been contacted by the organizers, but they will be once the project sends its proposals to the scientific ethics committees and other local bodies in the different countries, explains Fabricio Rodríguez dos Santos, the Brazilian expert coordinating the project in the region.
A professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Rodríguez dos Santos is vehement in stating that the aims of the study are strictly historical and anthropological. Wells does the same.
''We are being very clear that we are not doing anything of medical relevance and we are not going to being patenting any of the genetic information,’’ Wells told Tierramérica.
No pharmaceutical or insurance companies are involved, he said.
Around 40 million dollars in financing for the five-year effort will come, in part, from the Waitt Family Foundation in the United States.
And the project leaders hope the coffers will see some revenues from global sales of a home-use kit, costing just under 10 dollars, allowing any citizen to send in their DNA. A few swipes of the inside of one's cheek with a swab is sufficient for a sample.
The issue of human genes and patents has fueled some macabre stories, and is the focus of a global debate on ethics.
In Brazil, unscrupulous genetic studies involving Amazon Indians like the Yanomami and Ticuna have been recorded since the 1960s and 1970s.
More recently, scandal erupted around the case of Internet sales of genes of the Karitiana and Suruí Indians, from the Amazonian state of Rondonia, by a division of the U.S.-based Coriell Institute for Medical Research.
''We were hurt before. They took our blood, they took our DNA, and sold it at 85 dollars per cell. We didn't receive any benefit,'' says indigenous leader Almir Suruí.
''There are no guarantees that this won't happen again. There are laws, but there is no assurance they will be obeyed,'' he adds.
Experiences like these cast a shadow over the Genographic Project. But the bigger storm cloud, according to U.S. rights activists, is the controversial Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), dating to 1991.
The initiative, based at the Morrison Institute at Stanford University, in the U.S. state of California, aimed to study human genetic variations to help design new medical treatments, among other purposes.
Angry anthropologists, activists and Indians described the project as ''racist'' and prevented it from taking place in its original form. The United Nations denied funding.
''We called (the HGDP) the 'vampire project' because it involved collecting the blood of our indigenous brothers without their consent,'' says Tarcila Rivera, a leader of indigenous and Amazonian women in Peru.
The non-governmental organization Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB), from the United States, participated in the campaign against HGDP. ''This is a recurrent nightmare,'' says IPCB director Debra Harry, a Pauite Indian.
The Genographic Project ''is essentially the same project we defeated years ago,'' she told Tierramérica.
The best evidence to that effect, according to IPCB, is in the composition of the Genographic Project's advisory council. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, renowned geneticist and leading promoter of the HGDP, heads the council. And Wells was his disciple at Stanford University.
Peruvian activist Rivera backs the idea of Gabriel Muyuy, former indigenous senator in Colombia -- who also remembers the HGDP -- to convene a debate about the Genographic Project. ''There are ethical principles that must be taken into account,'' Muyuy said.
On the day the project was launched, the IPCB called for a boycott.
National Geographic has stressed that there are significant differences between the two projects.
''We have opened up the project to questions all people might have and not just scientists. I think that's a key difference. With the HGDP it wasn't clear what was going to be gained from their research. We want this (Genographic Project) to be relevant to the entire world,'' says Wells.
The gene study proposes establishing a fund to promote educational and cultural preservation projects for the participating indigenous groups.
Saharon Rosset, a scientist with IBM, the computer giant entrusted with processing the project's data, states plainly: ''The Genographic Project has learned from the failure of the HGDP. There will be much better communication with indigenous peoples, including informed consent that both individuals and tribal leaders will understand.''
The sophisticated IBM computers are intended to ensure that the stored information about the DNA samples remain anonymous. But each person could learn about his or her ancestors via the Internet, using a non-transferable identification key.
The DNA samples are not to be saved in permanent cellular lines. The samples will be destroyed at the end of the project.
In Latin America, the Genographic Project will be looking at the origin of the Quechua peoples of the Lake Titicaca region, shared by Peru and Bolivia, the expansion of the Tupi peoples in several Amazonian countries, and the human migrations related to the domestication of corn varieties.
Are the indigenous communities perhaps interested in delving into their own origins?
On the other side of the world, Cherryl Smith, of the Maori peoples of New Zealand, responds: ''Our oral traditions tell us the names and connections right back to the beginnings of time. Why would we want someone to come along and confirm or deny what we already know?'' -- Needless to say, Smith supports the boycott.
* Indians’ Genetic Material Sold on Internet
* María Amparo Lasso is the Tierramérica editorial director. With reporting by Stephen Leahy (Canada), Yadira Ferrer (Colombia), Mario Osava (Brazil) and Abraham Lama (Peru).