Community Autonomy and the Maya ICBG Project in Chiapas, Mexico: How a Bioprospecting Project That Should Have Succeeded Failed

By Berlin, Brent; Berlin, Elois Ann | Human Organization, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Community Autonomy and the Maya ICBG Project in Chiapas, Mexico: How a Bioprospecting Project That Should Have Succeeded Failed


Berlin, Brent, Berlin, Elois Ann, Human Organization


The autonomy of indigenous and local communities is widely recognized by international, national, and local laws and customs. This autonomy includes the recognized rights of communities to grant permission to enter into agreements for access to their resources, including the commercial use of these resources based on fair and equitable benefit-sharing arrangements. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their allies have questioned the autonomy of local indigenous communities, which they claim have no rights to enter into agreements for bioprospecting projects. Efforts to limit the autonomy of local communities concerning commercial use of biological resources is tied to NGO opposition to any form of sustainable development which they believe contributes to globalization and exploitation of the developing countries of the South by the developed countries of the North. To achieve their goals, these groups have launched negative misinformation campaigns to discredit applied biodiversity research projects and the scientists who lead them. Although these NGOs have no legitimate authority to speak for local communities, their access to the press and the Internet provides them with a platform that allows them to be identified as the voice of the indigenous and local communities of the world. In this case study of the Maya ICBG project in Chiapas, Mexico, we describe how local community autonomy was taken from indigenous communities that had agreed to participate in an international development project on drug discovery, biodiversity conservation, and sustained economic development. A major lesson to be drawn from the Maya ICBG case is that local indigenous community autonomy, as envisioned in the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity, is more myth than reality in the access-to-biological-resources debate, especially in the politically charged climate of Mexico and Latin America.

Key words: community autonomy, sustainable economic development, natural resources, bioprospecting, Maya, Chiapas, Mexico

What is the future of applied development programs that aim to promote the economic uses of biodiversity in regions of the world where indigenous and traditional communities are directly affected? An answer to the question is framed by one of two starkly different philosophical positions that characterize the access-to-geneticresources debate today. The first holds that indigenous and local communities can raise their health and economic standards by participating in projects that promote the sustainable uses of the biological resources under their control. The second claims such projects, rather than providing local indigenous communities with opportunities for improving their marginalized status, are actually deliberate acts of economic colonialism.

In this paper we provide a description and analysis of how these two views were played out in the context of a major bioprospecting project in Chiapas, Mexico. We first outline the antecedents leading to one of the most important international environmental agreements of the 20th century, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD; UNEP 1993), and point out the major clauses of the convention relating to local and indigenous communities. We then describe an innovative applied research initiative of the National Institutes of Health, the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) Program, that was created with the belief that "drug discovery research with natural products [can] be conducted in such a way as to simultaneously promote human health, economic development, and conservation of biodiversity" (Rosenthal et al. 1999:6).

We follow this short discussion with a description of the major aims, methods, and initial results of a project supported by the ICBG Program, the Maya International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (Maya ICBG), one with multiple purposes and interlocking interdisciplinary components that would have benefited hundreds of Highland Maya communities in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico (Berlin et al. …

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