Claire Wallerstein, Caracas
Ethnic and political arguments have paralysed an ambitious scheme to make an inventory of indigenous medicinal plants andremedies in Venezuela’s Amazon jungle that could be used to developdrugs to fight cancer and AIDS. Preparations for the bioresearchproject, involving 50 scientists from the Venezuelan Instituteof Scien-tific Investigation and three Venezuelan universities,started with input from Oxford University’s Foundation for Ethnobiology in1991.
The project’s director, Dr Fabian Michelangeli, said: "It’s impossible to underestimate the potential of this. Venezuela rankssixth in terms of world biodiversity, with at least 25000 speciesof plants, of which around 2000 have medicinal uses." An excitingaspect of the project would be exploration of some of the country’s150 tepuis (massive, sheer sided, flat mountains), he added. Independentevolution of these mountains, which inspired Conan Doyle’s "LostWorld," means that 60% of the plant species occurring there areindigenous.
Although government permission for the project was granted in 1999, a new socialist constitution ratified early this yearradically increased the rights of the country’s indigenous tribesto self determination in ancestral lands. Within three months,permits were withdrawn after complaints from the largest and mostmilitant, church backed, indigenous political organisation, theRegional Organisation of Indigenous Amazon Peoples (known asOrpia).
The organisation claims that the Amazon’s tribes have been systematically exploited by the country’s white people and is demandingcompensation. Dr Michelangeli said: "I do not deny that therehas been exploitation but we don’t have any money to give away.However, the people are legally entitled to 10% of any profitsif any drug can be produced, and could also be in charge of growingand selling the plants. The project would also preserve ancientmedical knowledge which has been quickly dying out with increasingreliance on Western food and medicine. This could have a majorpositive impact on indigenous health, which is currentlyappalling."
Dr Michelangeli’s real complaint, however, is that Orpia does not even represent the 60 people living in the initial 200 km2 area of the project all of whom have given their permission andhave not heard of Orpia. In any case, he added, the area cannotbe considered as "ancestral territory" as the tribes have livedthere only since 1968. The very issue of ancestral lands is aminefield, he believes, as Amazonian tribes by their nature moveconstantly, die out, intermarry, and reappear under differentnames. A group rivalling Orpia, however, has backed the project,and Orpia appears to be using this as an electoral issue: itspresident, Guillermo Guevara, is running for a seat in the country’snational assembly. The government is unable to act until a consensushas been reached, and Mr Guevara will not discuss the issue untilafter the elections in the autumn. Dr Michelangeli said: "It’sso frustrating. In the year we were working we had already collected1200 species, of which 300 could have medicinal applications.Twenty have shown powerful antiviral, antibiotic, or antifungalproperties, and two contain components which seem to attack breastcancer cells. It would be such a shame if the world was deprivedof a cure for AIDS, for example, because of politicalmanoeuvering."
BMJ 2000;321:9 ( 1 July ).