By Michelle Santos
In Peru, little remains of the former Inca Empire other than the remaining indigenous communities, their diverse languages and beliefs, and over 20,000 species of plants that nourish and heal them. One of them, a root called Maca, was a valuable commodity around 1500 AD because it could survive at altitudes of over 10,000 feet in the Andean Mountains. Legend has it that Inca Imperial Warriors devoured the root to acquire strength before battle. Twenty years ago, this root gained international attention for its powerful health benefits. Maca, also referred to as Peruvian Ginseng and Natural Viagra, is one of Peru’s biggest exports and is known for increasing fertility and libido, and curing a variety of health problems.
Unfortunately, Maca’s popularity increased the number of biopiracy incidents. INDECOPI, a branch of the World Intellectual Property Organization founded in 1992, was established to combat biopiracy and deal with intellectual property rights in Peru. Andrés Valladolid, president of the commission against biopiracy at INDECOPI, explained that in 2001, Maca left Peru and was illegally exported to China. “It is impossible to control. I can place the entire genetic diversity of the Maca in the space of an iPhone because the seeds are very small. There is not much genetic diversity,” said Valladolid.
In 2002, Peru formally denounced American patents on the Maca root, which claimed novel health remedies, such as regulation of testosterone levels, when this information was already traditional knowledge for Peruvian indigenous communities. As a result, indigenous farmers could not export Maca extracts to the United States. Many Peruvians protested two US companies that patented Maca, looking to INDECOPI to investigate and prohibit other international patents. Mr. Valladolid explained, “In the case of the Maca… there are around 1,400 patents. 70% are Chinese and the majority are related to health. In theory, Maca should only be grown in Peru.” However, the privatization of natural resources allows companies to restrict access to and charge users for those resources. Indigenous communities and Peruvian farmers are deprived of compensation for their traditional knowledge and must pay to use natural resources that have been freely available to them for centuries.
Despite the continued threat, INDECOPI’s efforts have made Peru a global leader in protecting indigenous rights to compensation and use of natural resources. INDECOPI’s role includes registering indigenous knowledge and protecting communities from exploitation. For example, if an individual or corporation wishes to commercialize a product using knowledge gathered from an indigenous community, they must first have prior informed consent. This is a legal contract that gives them the right to access and use indigenous knowledge as well as the plant. They must also contribute a minimum of 10% of their earnings on the product to the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, established in 2002. This fund compensates Peru’s indigenous communities for their contributions and makes improvements in their education and health services, infrastructure, and more. Companies that commit biopiracy must also pay a fine, but, despite laws that are meant to prevent illegal exports of Maca, there is no way to hold lawbreakers accountable once they leave Peru. The Peruvian government can only prohibit violating companies from obtaining the plants in the future, forcing big companies to comply with the rules if they wish use Peru’s plants. Peruvian law also establishes indigenous communities’ rights to the knowledge of the plants: for example, no one can patent Maca for its ability to increase fertility because this knowledge has been known by the indigenous people for centuries. However, the government has complete rights to the genetic properties of the plant. If a pharmaceutical company or individual requests access to a plant to make a medicine, they only need permission from the government to have the physical plant.
To the indigenous communities and their descendants, plants are more than just nutrition and medicine. They are powerful spirits that many indigenous people use to connect with their ancestors and culture through shaman rituals. Many communities fear that one day, due to urbanization, the Amazon Rainforest will disappear and they will lose their connection to their ancestral spirits. They also risk losing their culture, languages, and knowledge of plants.
Prior to Spanish colonization, over 47 languages were spoken in Peru, according to Agustín Panizo of the Department of Indigenous Languages in the Ministry of Culture. Since then, 37 have been lost, with devastating consequences for indigenous culture – and knowledge of plants. Many indigenous languages are associated with poverty, lack of opportunities, and more negative qualities. Often, parents choose to not teach their children their language to protect them from discrimination. “Language extinction is just a symptom of a social problem. The social problem is the inequity between different groups in society. If you want to revitalize a language, you have to work in more profound problems because people will continue to be discriminated,” explained Mr. Panizo. For generations, indigenous communities have orally passed down traditional knowledge of these plants and their usage for healing and spiritual purposes. Failing to protect indigenous languages and intellectual property rights could mean the loss of Peruvian heritage and national identity, as well as the loss of plant species and plant knowledge that could help save lives around the world.
Michelle Santos ‘19 is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.