#92 Biopiracy of indigenous people’s psychoactive substances

Have you ever experienced buying a new car or paying close attention to something, and then that thing keeps popping up everywhere you look? Right, so this “frequency illusion” currently is happening to me with regard to psychedelic biopiracy. I first heard about biopiracy from iboga activist and conservationist, Yann Guignon, and I’ve noticed the term pop up ever since. The latest occurrence happened on LinkedIn, where Dr. Joseph Barsuglia, partner to Bwiti shaman Tricia Eastman, posted a commentary of his latest presentation at the Los Angeles Medicinal Plant Society Symposium (LAMPSS) 2021, titled From extractive to blessing: Inverting psychedelic biotech through adoption of the Nagoya protocol and Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC). With so much talk about biopiracy these days, I wanted to see what I’d come up with in my usual stream of consciousness writing.

Barsuglia gives a good definition of biopiracy, saying, in sum, that it literally means “the patenting of life.” I checked out his source, WitFeeder, and found a definition I particularly liked: “Biopiracy is the practice of commercially exploiting and obtaining monopoly rights over the traditional knowledge and of valuable genetic resources and biochemicals of indigenous people without any commemoration.” (See also Wikipedia’s definition of biopiracy.)

I’m not an expert on this topic, but I gather that psychedelic pharmaceutical companies are repeating the same actions as pharmaceutical companies decades ago; that is to say, to go to a region, such as the Amazon rainforest, speak to locals about the kinds of plants they use for various purposes, bring those plants back to their country, analyze the plant, isolate the claimed property for which it has been traditionally used, patent it, and then make lots of money from the patent, all the while, the indigenous population that has been using this plant for hundreds/thousands of years get little or zero financial compensation or recognition for their discovery. In an apparent unethical twist of fate, as these indigenous populations increasingly adopt Western lifestyles and thus forget or disregard plant knowledge from their biome, they will likely resort to paying for a medication that was patented/stolen by Western pharmaceutical companies. It seems then that Western psychedelic pharmaceutical companies are as much to blame as pharmaceutical actors from the past. Why haven’t they learned that such practices are not fair, since they could learn from others’ past mistakes. My guess is that these companies act the way they do because they probably feel there will be little to no resistance from indigenous peoples, and even if there is, decades later and fines to pay, these companies will have already made their money. Same thing happens with tech companies: they engage in unethical practices, make a billion dollars for example, then get fined later by some governmental agency for a fraction of the money they already made. These are serious issues, a fine line we’re all walking. I have so many questions about this topic.

My first question is: how do we make this right for both parties, i.e., (i) the indigenous people and (ii) the pharmaceutical company interested in an organic product local to and used by said indigenous people? What kinds of conditions would be attached by indigenous peoples for Western companies to be allowed to research, for example, their psychoactive compounds such as ayahuasca, iboga, etc.? To what degree do both parties share in profits made from modern scientific synthesis and application of such substances? I’m thinking now about another related example, that of petroleum extraction. I can’t imagine oil companies offer fair deals to developing countries that have large reserves of oil. On the other hand, the oil company will build infrastructure, put up all the expenses to run such an operation, and so forth, so, there is that to consider. And of course, some of the earned money goes into the coffers of corrupt politicians; it’s difficult to say how much the local population in said developing country benefits from an outside (usually Western) oil company extracting their resource. I suppose my question is: if Western pharmaceutical companies foot the research bill, and could potentially find nothing at the end of years of research, what fair percentage of future profits should indigenous people get if their native psychoactive compound/medicine is synthesized and theoretically consumed en masse?

Another question I have pertains to how the drug should be used if indigenous peoples grant access to, say, Westerners wanting to study their psychoactive substance. In Slide 6 of Barsuglia’s presentation he cites Bwiti elder, Bernadettte Rebienot: “It is no longer okay for people to go into our forests and to take our medicines, patent them without our permission, and use them without their teachings.” I agree with the first two points—unsanctioned acquisition of medicines and their subsequent patenting—but with due respect to Rebienot, I’m not entirely convinced on the last point. Yes, Bwiti traditions should be respected. My point is this: what if Westerners find out that iboga can cure opioid addiction or Alzheimer’s or any number of diseases? For Rebienot, and likely many of her peers, iboga should be used according to Bwiti teachings. Again, I respect Bwiti and Gabonese cultures, but at the end of the day it is not my culture. Is it possible to take iboga in a non-Bwiti, non-ritual, non-ceremonial context and still have respect for the substance and the people who kept this tradition alive for us Westerners to find many many years later? I believe so. I’m simply taking a more (“deep time,” historical) bird’s-eye view of using a traditional psychedelic substance. If people say that iboga can only be used a certain way and for a certain purpose, and many people adopt this view, then, I think we (humans) limit ourselves to the potentiality of what iboga and other psychedelics could be capable of.

Another point that has been sloshing around my mind pertains to some of the views put forth by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). In a nutshell, Locke said that your labor is the determining factor to your right to property. (Keep in mind, this is from a Western/European perspective.)

For example, let’s talk about apple orchards. Locke would say that a wild apple orchard is everyone’s property, and everyone has equal access to what nature provides. If, on the other hand, you invest the time, energy, and effort to plant apple tree seeds, watering and caring for them, then you should be entitled to the fruits of your labor.

Surely there are wild Tabernanthe iboga trees in western Africa. But, let us assume for this thought experiment that all iboga trees are intentionally farmed by West African peoples. Now, if I’m a Western pharmaceutical company and I buy fair trade iboga, in other words, not poached illegally, can I do whatever I want with that iboga for whatever purpose because I paid the people who produced it? Likewise, you own the apple farm and are entitled to do whatever you want with your apples. You keep some for personal use and you have a surplus to sell on the open market. If I buy your apples and manufacture apple sauce with them, and then I sell this apple sauce on the open market, is the farmer entitled to any of the money I made from the labor I put into producing my apple sauce? Personally, I don’t think so.

And this is exactly the point I’m curious about when it comes to biopiracy: If a company or individual fairly buys a traditionally used psychedelic from an indigenous people/region, to what degree should the indigenous people receive compensation? Where do we draw the line so that everyone is happy, respectful, reciprocal?

BEFORE YOU CRITIQUE: I AGREE THAT BIOPIRACY IS WRONG AND THAT INDIGENOUS PEOPLES SHOULD BE COMPENSATED FOR THEIR KNOWLEDGE / DISCOVERIES / RESOURCES. I know very little about this topic and am simply trying to understand both sides of the debate and curious what steps are being taken, or could be taken, to make things fair for everyone. Please help me and other readers better understand this touchy topic with a comment below.

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