Magazine article New Internationalist

The Gene Hunters

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Gene Hunters

Article excerpt

When an Australian biotech firm went bioprospecting in Tonga, Lopeti Senituli was part of the welcoming committee.

THE first the Tongan people heard of the agreement regarding genetic research on their blood was through media reports from Australia on 18 November 2000. Concerned fellow activists from as far afield as Melbourne, London, Geneva and Suva contacted us almost simultaneously at the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement (THRDM) wondering why we had not alerted them. We managed to convince them that we were as surprised as they were.

From Melbourne came a copy of an article from the local Herald Sun with the headline `Gutnick Buys Rights to Islanders' Genes', outlining how Australian business magnate Joseph Gutnick's company Autogen Limited had signed an agreement with the Tongan Government to conduct genetic research on the Tongan people. The article also mentions that, apart from interests in mining and owning a football team, Gutnick is a confidant of the former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and that former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke sits on Autogen's Board. (Hawke has since resigned.)

Our immediate concern was to verify the media reports. During that same week I was a co-panellist with a senior member of the Prime Minister's Office staff in a seminar on Human Rights and Development. The discussions inevitably led to Autogen and my co-panellist was absolutely sure that no agreement had been sanctioned by the Prime Minister nor by His Majesty's Government.

Tonga is the only surviving kingdom in the Pacific. It has survived primarily because it was never colonized, and the Tongan people today still have a deep reverence for their monarch His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

Tonga's population today is approximately 100,000 with another 100,000 living (legally or otherwise) in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and the US. We are a constitutional monarchy with a Legislative Assembly of 30 members, only 9 of whom are directly elected. The day-to-day running of government is in the hands of a Prime Minister and a Cabinet of Ministers, all of whom are handpicked by His Majesty.

Fancy footwork

The denial by the Prime Minister's Office of knowledge of the Autogen agreement had two major implications. First it allayed fears that our government may have pulled another `fast one' on us. In the late 1980s His Majesty's Cabinet sold Tongan passports to mainly Asian buyers without the knowledge of the public or approval of the Legislative Assembly. When Samuela 'Akilisi Pohiva, Secretary of the THRDM, sued the Government for violating the country's constitution, the King convened an emergency session of the Legislative Assembly in January 1991 and had the Constitution amended so that the passport sales became retrospectively legal and constitutional. The second implication was that if Autogen's public announcement of the agreement via the Australian media was intended to coerce the Tongan Government into fast-tracking their proposal or railroading local opposition it had the opposite effect. Tongans were incensed that they knew nothing about the agreement and its implications beforehand.

The Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement condemned the agreement because its implications had never been discussed publicly. We also said: `What is involved is the sanctified blood of human beings and not the genetic make-up of our pigs (with all due respect), so there should have been prior public discussions...'

In response to the public outcry the Minister of Health was forced to admit that he and officials from his ministry were having ongoing discussions with Autogen, but denied having signed an agreement.

In subsequent statements we argued that in Tonga gossip is lethal and travels faster than the speed of sound. So if the research established, for example, that a certain family is genetically predisposed to dementia and such information leaked out, the children of that family would be refused bank loans, employment and insurance; no-one would want to marry them; they would become pariahs forever. …

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