Jungle Medicine

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KEITH DANNEMILLER/CORBIS SABA FOR TIME

HOME REMEDY: A Piaroa shaman in Venezuela harvests leaves used to treat common skin rash

Women the world over may find a miracle brewing in a place called Uruka Amahuaja, a cluster of huts in the Venezuelan rain forest, reachable only by dugout canoe. Biologist Ramiro Royero has set up a computerized field office there to collect data on a plant still unknown to the outside world: a shrub whose poinsettia-like leaves are steeped as a medicinal tea by the Piaroa tribe to relieve menstrual cramps — without the caffeine jitters and other side effects caused by most of today's commercial remedies.

Maria Lopez, 59, a tribal matriarch, assesses Royero's work with the eye of a seasoned businesswoman — and for good reason. She knows that if the plant has commercial value, Venezuelan law may soon give the Piaroa rights for compensation from drug companies, which would have to recognize what the community calls its intellectual property. In years past, says Lopez, "we always gave up our medicines without any economic gain for ourselves. We won't make that mistake again."

Firms that sell prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines and supplements collect revenues as high as $30 billion a year from products inspired by the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities like the Piaroa, according to biodiversity-research organizations like the Canada-based ETC Group. Researchers view jungles from South America to Southeast Asia as bountiful sources of new treatments for cancer, AIDS and other diseases. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, more than 25% of the ingredients in cancer medicines today were either discovered in rain forests or synthesized in labs from discoveries made there. But the tribal shamans, who lead corporate and academic researchers to therapeutic flora and fauna, rarely see a penny of the pharmaceutical industry's profits — which are the highest of any business in the world as a percentage of revenues (18.5% last year on U.S. revenues of $179 billion).

Developing nations from Venezuela to Thailand say they are feeling like chumps and are moving to better protect their indigenous communities and wildlife from what they call "biocolonialism" or "biopiracy." The governments are drafting strict laws to ensure that the world's 300 million mostly poor tribal people share in the wealth that their knowledge helps create. One of the newer strategies is for governments or indigenous communities to obtain commercial patent rights on medicines and other products divined in animals and plants before the labs can muscle in. (None of the new laws are retroactive.) They also hope to make biocolonialism a key global trade issue at next month's meeting of the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva. "This isn't about charity for Indians," says Royero, head of Venezuela's nongovernmental Science Development Foundation. "These drug companies have long been doing business with someone else's 'inventions,' if you will."

Some countries, including Costa Rica and the Philippines, force companies to pay millions of dollars for the right to "bioprospect" in their jungles. Others have significantly restricted researchers' access: Mexico recently canceled a $2.5 million, U.S.-led drug-prospecting project when Maya Indians in Chiapas complained. But Royero and the Venezuelan government are on the movement's cutting edge: they are developing an unprecedented, classified database of plants and animals that have commercial potential as medicines and foods. Companies that see a scientifically verified, patented discovery advertised on the database would pay — through the central government, to the appropriate tribe — a fee for the classified information. Afterward, should a new menstrual-pain remedy or strain of soybean be commercialized as a result, the company would then be required to pay the community royalties.

It can take more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs for a company to market an effective drug from natural resources, and the big scores are rare. But they do happen. As many as a quarter of all prescription drugs today are linked to the kinds of indigenous discoveries that make Brazilian catuaba bark a rain-forest version of Viagra for the herbal-supplement crowd. Two of Eli Lilly's more successful cancer drugs, Velban and Oncovin, were developed from Madagascar's rosy periwinkle plant, found through a shaman some 40 years ago. In the 1990s the two cancer drugs produced combined sales of $100 million a year. In September, Lilly, based in Indianapolis, Ind., agreed to pay up to $325 million to join San Diego's Amylin Pharmaceuticals in developing a potential diabetes treatment that owes its origins to the venom of a lizard, the Gila monster, found in the deserts of the Southwestern U.S.

Even a poison secreted by South American frogs and used by tribes like the Piaroa to make deadly blowgun darts now serves as the basis for a morphine substitute being developed by Chicago-based drug giant Abbott Laboratories. "This is what I call the genetic patrimony of our indigenous peoples," says Venezuelan Science and Technology Vice Minister Marlene Yadira. "And if these communities disappear" because of their poverty, "who will be the source of this knowledge for the companies?"

Drug corporations warn that tribal royalties could raise prescription-drug costs in countries like the U.S., where those costs already are a hot political issue. That's one reason (in addition to the campaign cash showered on Washington by drugmakers) the Bush Administration opposes the idea. It points to a World Trade Organization ruling that excludes commercial rights for traditional knowledge that is later engineered into medicines or genetically developed foods. But at the December intellectual-property meeting in Geneva, indigenous groups plan to cite the U.N.'s 1992 Convention on Biodiversity, which concedes to developing nations the right to be compensated for traditional knowledge.

The growing dispute may sour the drug industry's appetite for rain-forest research and development. Abbott, for example, irked by tribal claims, denies that a poison-dart frog had anything to do with its new pain-killer (which is in clinical trials) other than inspiring the company to take a closer look at a similar group of synthetic compounds. Says a spokeswoman for another major U.S. firm: "We've started scaling back. We just don't think you can define 'traditional knowledge' in that kind of legalistic way." Others fear that, given the notorious corruption of many Third World governments, any royalties that drug companies pay to struggling indigenous peoples might end up in officials' pockets. And by keeping First World scientists at arm's length, the new laws risk slowing development of medicines, such as malaria and cholera remedies, that may benefit the tribes.

What, if anything, the participants hash out in Geneva will be closely watched as far away as Aska Aja, another Piaroa village upriver from Uruka Amahuaja. There, Royero recently met with a shaman, Jacinto Martinez, 62, whose wife had died hours earlier from an operable eye tumor. The tribe had no access to a surgeon — nor money to pay one. For years, Martinez has helped scientists identify plants near Aska Aja that treat everything from skin rashes to diarrhea. What he would like in return, he says, waving away flies from his wife's wrapped corpse, is some of the benefits of modern medicine.