After the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920, Mexico sees a rise of Indigenismo that would influence the “Mexican Miracle”(Clancy 2001): from 1930-1960, Mexico experienced political stability, combined with steady economic growth. The face of the economy started to shift from rural agriculture to urban industrialization, as Mexico attempted to become an industrialized country. However, with the rise of the financial crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, Mexico found itself threatening to default on debt payments in 1982. With this threat, came the emergence of neoliberal reforms and investment advised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (IBD). Among these changes, were “‘market mediated’ conservation and development initiatives that took root in the late 1980s and early 1990s” (Hayden, 361), threatened but not stopped by the Zapitista movement. Bioprospecting encompasses the ‘pharmaceutical companies’ use of plants and “traditional knowledge” as leads for developing new drugs” (Hayden, 359), and it gained momentum when western life-science companies saw this as a valuable shortcut for finding new leads. Then, in 1992, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), redrew “jurisdiction over ‘genetic resources’ and ‘traditional knowledge’ by taking them out of the global commons and placing them squarely within the sovereignty of nation-states” (Hayden, 362). Hence, the CBD validated the International Property Right(IPR) of indigenous knowledge and furthermore mandated drug and biotechnology companies redistribute a portion of the profits derived from bioprospecting, to the source nations and communities: one can no longer ‘take’ without ‘giving’. Bioprospecting would be a fore-runner of these neoliberal initiatives in Mexico, as it seemed a convenient vehicle to drive pharmaceutical discovery and, simultaneously, sustainable development and ‘redistributive justice’ (Hayden, 359). Yet, these initiatives are entangled with idioms of community and market, that have shaped forms of inclusion and exclusion, and have ultimately ensured the failure of bioprospecting as mode for sustainable development and IPR ‘redistributive justice’.
Key players in shaping bioprospecting, particularly in Mexico, were the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) and the U.S. government International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) compared to la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM, Mexico’s National Autonomous University) run by lead ethnobotanist, Robert Bye. In bioprospecting, the real debate is not who benefits but how to choose who benefits and how benefit is distributed. Both the NIH and UNAM bioprospecting methods shaped these relationships differently, yet encountered a similar inability in properly redistributing benefits: “The point where these two models of benefit-sharing diverge is not, then, where they end up but, rather, where they begin” (Hayden, 367).
Marx and Mauss helped cement the idioms of market and community, defining “market as the site of abstraction, commodity transaction, rational actors, and disembedded and disentangled relations”, and, “community as the bearer of gift, home to barter, share values and embedded relations” (Hayden, 360). These ideas have shaped the way in which redistribution has taken place by compartmentalizing, essentializing and separating the idioms of market and community, thus having effect on the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and/or groups as benefit-recipients. Benefit-recipients in bioprospecting initiatives “are those people who can be rewarded for their identifiable input of labor and innovation into, and stewardship of nature”(Hayden, 362), but as discussed earlier, it is easily identifiable by definition and less so in reality.
The NIH invokes the idiom of community through their bioprospecting initiatives, or initiatives being carried out by groups like the ICGB who’s ‘industrial outlet’ (by that Hayden means the NIH that provides power, funding and even legitimacy) dictates their method and goals. The NIH’s focus on community in lieu of the market, is because it is believed that market plants are too far removed from their source. As a result, it is questioned if market plants “produce the right relationships between communities and biodiversity-derived benefits?” thus deeming the market, “an unsettling interruption”(Hayden, 364) in bioprospecting. With community regarded as “an idealized and necessary source or site of quasi-sovereignty, collective authorship and ethical capacity” (Hayden, 368), the NIH proposed community based prospecting to ensure legitimacy and provide a rout for reciprocity. Benefit-sharing contracts were to be used to provide legitimate claim as a benefit-recipient of the bioprospecting program. However, this theory was driven by the assumptions that plants, people and knowledge are found in a ‘package’ a ‘community’. Furthermore, community was limited to those with biodiversity-rich climates but could include privately held ranches, where scientist repeatedly chose to select specimens from. Shortcuts to specimen collection are the implications of the difficult, yet still essentialized, task that recognizes IPR of indigenous knowledge, while fulfilling guidelines, regulations and quotas to maintain project funding.
Robert Bye and the UNAM, on the other hand, first centered their bioprospecting initiatives through urban plant markets. The market replaces the need for benefit-sharing contracts as the contract and benefit is in the sale, mediated by the market forces of supply and demand, and allows for strategic essentialism in order to avoid long-term obligation. Furthermore, “popular plant names and uses, for example, are on vivid display, alongside other key dimensions of ethnobotanical inquiry such as which part of a given plant people consider most useful” (Hayden, 363). While market plants are seen as useful as a result of their industrial potential (their ability to mass-manufacture with their extracts), the potential influx of demand could strain the agricultural process and yields. Ideas of conservation are removed in this stage, as, from the market, each plant’s specific root of origin is too cumbersome to navigate. For this reason, Haden states, “it is impossible to trace this prehispanic-national legacy to particular individuals and communities they have made a bid for redefining the relationship between resource acquisition and benefit-sharing” (Hayden, 365) The UNAM decided to use middle men like NGOs and Indigenous Collectives with like-minded goals and/or projects, to change from direct exchange to a ‘wider’ benefit. However, these like-minded goals imply shared universals, that inhibit the success of sustainable development. Hence, UNAM strategies for prospecting fall short of a full-picture plant origin and ethnographic history, as both strategies continue to essentialize the plant, its significance and the people that grow it.
Both notion of redistribution and compensation from the NIH and Bye, “aim to find ways to enroll the proper kinds of subjects into longer-term projects of stewardship”(Hayden, 367). These idioms and neoliberal mechanism implemented by the NIH and Bye have blindly guided these bioprospecting initiatives into ineffective domains. Notions of ‘us’ and them’ allow bioprospecting initiatives to regard indigenous knowledge, agriculture and resources only so valuable as to identify what each herbal remedy is used for and what plant(s) and strain(s) are contained in said remedy. The hopes and end-goal of bioprospecting lie, instead, in the hands of the educated scientists, who’s work could lead scientific discovery.
Clancy, Michael. 2001. Mexican Tourism: Export Growth and Structural Change. Texas: University of Texas Press.
Hayden, C. 2003. From Market to Market: Bioprospecting's Idioms of Inclusion. American Ethnologist. 30(3) August 2003:359-371.