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BIOPIRACY IN THE AMAZON- HISTORICAL FACTS

Pau Brasil

Biopiracy in the Amazon began almost immediately after the "discovery" by the Portuguese in 1500, when they stole the secret - from the indigenous people of the region - how to extract a red pigment from pau-brasil (brazil wood). Emblematic of today's situation, in which flora and fauna continue to disappear, the wood that gave Brazil its' name has completely disappeared, being preserved only in a few botanical gardens.

Rubber

The most infamous case is that of Englishman Henry Alexander Wickham, who in 1876 took rubber tree seeds - some say he hid them between banana leaves - to a new plantation of Hevea brasiliensis in the British colonies in Malaysia. In a few decades the region would become the main exporter of latex, ruining the rubber tree-based Amazon economy. Wickham was knighted by King George V and loathed by Brazil's rubber barons who called him "the Executioner of Amazonas."

Quinine

An other example is the malaria drug quinine: The indigenous people used the plant as an infusion in fever treatment. Derived from the cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis) it was used in the 20s in the US for the treatment of malaria. Known as Indian fever bark the product was used in Europe since the early 1500s. (One century later its name had been changed to Jesuit fever bark…) The demand for cinchona almost made it extinct. By smuggling it from South America to Java, in 1865, Englishman Charles Ledger saved the plant. And - already sixty years later - more than 95% of the world's quinine was coming from Java…

Curare

The conflict is inevitable when it comes to patenting of medicinal plants: Curare, for example is a poisonous concoction with several plants whose formula was kept as an Indian secret for centuries. Some indigenous peoples use the formula for poisoning arrowheads. Alexander von Humboldt was the first European, in 1800, to witness and describe the way it was prepared.
But curare would start being used as an anesthetic only in 1943, four years after its active ingredient, the d-tubocurarine, was isolated.


Bibliography

  • Green Piracy, by Alessandra Dalevi, BRAZZIL July 1997
  • "Gene, Patente und die Life Industry", Greenpeace Germany 2000
  • Goulding, M., Smith, N.J.H., Mahar, D.J.: Floods of Fortune. Ecology and Economy along the Amazon. New York, Columbia University Press 1996
  • Dean, W.: Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press 1987

 


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