Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Bioprospecting and Its Discontents: Indigenous Resistances as Legitimate Politics

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Bioprospecting and Its Discontents: Indigenous Resistances as Legitimate Politics

Article excerpt

Chikako Takeshita (*)

This article seeks to analyze the discursive control exercised over indigenous people and knowledge through the rhetoric of bioprospecting and to conceptualize indigenous peoples' protests against bioprospecting as legitimate politics. On the one hand, bioprospecting, the exploration of biological resources in search of active compounds for pharmaceutical development, has been promoted as a "win-win-win" project that fosters the discovery of new drugs, economic development in countries that are rich in natural resources, and conservation of biodiversity. On the other hand, such attempts to find useful genetic and biological material in biodiverse regions of the Third World by Western researchers and industries have been accused of "biopiracy"--that is, the plunder of natural resources and related knowledge of the developing world by powerful industrial countries. (1)

Indigenous groups that reside in the tropical forests where some of these explorations take place have openly condemned bioprospecting activities and the application of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants to scientific research and commercial use. These protests have drawn sympathetic supporters from some quarters, but have also been dismissed as aberrations or deemed irrational by bioprospectors, with whom legitimacy automatically rests. Given this imbalance of power relations between indigenous peoples and bioprospectors, I take it as a worthy challenge to attempt to negotiate greater political legitimacy for the former.

The first step toward realizing this challenge is to comprehend bioprospecting as a "discourse"--a set of narrated knowledges and representations of constructed realities, which determines what modes of being and thinking are permissible or disqualified. Discourses channel power and control by defining the ways in which reality is conceptualized and by making contending or alternative accounts invisible or irrelevant. (2) In the case of explicitly globalized discourses, such as bioprospecting, meanings can be, and often are, imposed upon indigenous communities with relatively little economic and political power and used to legitimize certain interventions in indigenous peoples' affairs. The discourse of bioprospecting perforce weaves indigenous peoples into networks of forces and interests regulated and controlled by a narrow cross-section of the global scientific and political elite. This global elite has been, by and large, successful in setting the agenda and framework for addressing a range of issues invo lving indigenous knowledge and peoples in ways that are primarily beneficial to itself but that are advertised to be beneficial to all. In sum, as it constructs and mobilizes imposed images of indigenous people, hierarchizes their knowledge, and disempowers them by discounting their viewpoints, bio-prospecting is both rhetorically and practically hegemonic.

Paralleling advances in bioprospecting, however, is the enhanced visibility of local peoples in accordance with the increasing economic and ecological interests in their habitats. Heightened visibility has created spaces in which indigenous people can attempt to have their voices heard. Indigenous peoples' opposition to bioprospecting includes denying of access to their territories and demanding that patents on traditional knowledges be revoked. Various movements have also mounted semiotic forms of resistance against the meanings and identities imposed upon the indigenous peoples by the external forces of bioprospecting industry. These movements should not be regarded as sporadic local uprising, but as nodes in a broader network of attempts to resist the dominant discourses by upholding the notion that appealing to cultural differences is legitimately political.

In the main section of this article, following a brief overview of bioprospecting and biopiracy, I critically analyze bioprospecting as a hegemonic discourse that appropriates nature, indigenous people, and their knowledge. …

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