TITLE: Indigenous Peoples Oppose National Geographic & IBM Genetic Research Project that Seeks Indigenous Peoples DNA AUTHOR: Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism
DATE: 13 April 2005
The IPCB, an Indigenous organization that addresses issues of biopiracy began its work in 1993 to oppose the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a project so fraught with ethical and scientific problems it failed to get endorsement from the National Science Foundation, or UNESCO. Debra Harry, who is Northern Paiute and serves as IPCB’s Executive Director, noting this new project’s similarities with the HGDP, said, “This is a recurrent nightmare. It’s essentially the same project we defeated years ago. Some of the actors are different, but also some are the same. With the founder of the HGDP serving on this new project’s advisory committee, I can’t help but think this is simply a new reiteration of the HGDP.”
The HGDP faced international opposition by Indigenous peoples who considered the project an unconscionable attempt by genetic researchers to pirate their DNA for their own means. That experience has led to strong advocacy by Indigenous peoples to insure human rights standards are entrenched in research. Cherryl Smith, a Maori bioethicist from Aotearoa (New Zealand) said, “Indigenous groups around the world are much more aware of biopiracy, and our own human and collective rights in research. In the past ten years, we have developed extensive networks of Indigenous peoples who are knowledgeable and active in defense of their rights.”
Le’a Kanehe, a Native Hawaiian who serves as the IPCB’s Legal Analyst, gives the example of the Havasupai Tribe, who filed a lawsuit in 2004 against Arizona State University for the taking and misuse of their genetic samples. “Indigenous peoples are holding scientists accountable for use of their genetic material without prior informed consent, which is the accepted legal standard.” The tribe authorized diabetes research, but later discovered their samples were used for schizophrenia, inbreeding and migration theories.
The Genographic Project press release claims that an international advisory board will oversee the selection of Indigenous populations for testing as well as adhering to strict sampling and research protocols. The HGDP was unable to secure federal or UN support for failure to meet ethical concerns and standards. The Genographic Project has striking similarities to the HGDP. Dr. Jonathan Marks, genetic anthropologist and board member of the IPCB, said, “The HGDP was terminated because of intractable bioethical issues. Has IBM and National Geographic been able to remedy those issues? I don’t think so.” Harry is similarly concerned that the Genographic Project is an attempt to escape public and legal scrutiny by going private.
Kanehe says that “It’s interesting how in the past racist scientists, such as those in the eugenics movement, did studies asserting that we are biologically inferior to them; and now, they are saying their research will show that we’re all related to each other and share common origins. Both ventures are based on racist science and produce invalid, yet damaging conclusions about Indigenous cultures.”
IPCB Chairperson Judy Gobert (Blackfoot), said, “These kinds of projects have to stretch to claim any tangible benefits to Indigenous peoples. Somehow, the Genographic Project has led its Indigenous participants to believe its work will insure their people’s cultural preservation. There is a huge disconnect between genetic research and cultural preservation.” Smith says, “If they really want to help promote Indigenous peoples cultures there are more productive ways and methods for doing so.”
Noting the project’s goal to map the migratory history of humankind through DNA, Marla Big Boy, a Lakota attorney on IPCB’s board, says, “Our creation stories and languages carry information about our genealogy and ancestors. We don’t need genetic testing to tell us where we come from.” Big Boy notes with concern that the project proposes to do studies on ancient DNA. “We will not stand by while our ancestors are desecrated in the name of scientific discovery.”
The IPCB is calling on all Indigenous peoples, and our friends and colleagues to join in an international boycott of IBM, Gateway Computers (the source of the Waitt family fortune), and National Geographic until it’s demand that this project be abandoned are met. Harry said, “We are prepared to stop projects that treat us as scientific curiosities. We must act to protect our most vulnerable communities from this unwanted intrusion. We resisted the HGDP, and we will defeat this proposal as well.”
For more information contact:
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonism