July 22, 2006, Pg. 50-51
Hero or zero?
Indigenous people often have extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of
native plants--knowledge that pharmaceutical companies are keen to exploit.
Human rights advocates are fighting to protect indigenous intellectual property,
and in April developing countries pledged new steps to banish "biopirates"--
outsiders who steal the natives' medicinal knowledge for personal profit. At the centre of an ongoing controversy over biopiracy is the Guyana-born, UK-trained
chemist Conrad Gorinsky. Once a darling of environmentalists, Gorinsky has been
accused of stealing medical secrets from the tribe in which he grew up to profit from its unique knowledge of forest poisons. The man whose writing helped found Survival International - a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples - has been branded a biopirate and ostracised by his native land after attempting to patent their natural drugs. Now, Gorinsky speaks out. He rejects the claim that he is seeking to exploit the forest-dwellers of Guyana, and tells Fred Pearce that biopiracy laws are being
used to extinguish native rights, not protect them.
What is your connection to the tribes of Guyana?
I was born in Rupununi, which is just about the most remote part of Guyana rainforest on the northern edge of the Amazon basin. Caesar Gorinsky, my father, was a Pole who had emigrated to Brazil. He went there looking for gold and eventually became a cattle rancher in Guyana, marrying my mother, Nellie, a descendant of the local Atorad tribe.
What have you found out about the chemistry of the jungle since you left?
While at Barts Hospital in London in the 1960s and 1970s, I did a PhD studying the materials that I knew as a child - the natural drugs and poisons of the forest. I researched the products of the greenheart tree (Ocotea rodiaei), which only grows in Guyana. When I was young, the women chewed the tree's nuts as a contraceptive to control menstruation, and they made infusions of the bark
to prevent malaria fevers. At Barts I isolated an alkaloid from the tree that
was the active ingredient, and called it rupununine after the area where I grew
I also investigated a poison that the locals call cunani. It comes from the leaves of a savannah bush and they use it to catch fish. I remember we made spit balls of the leaves as a bait and threw them into ponds. On eating it the fish became disorientated, started jumping out of the water, and were easily caught by hand. But the poison left the flesh safe to eat and the water clean. At Barts, I isolated the active ingredient, a type of polyacetylene that acts as a powerful stimulant to the nervous system. I called it cunaniol.
Were the indigenous people of Guyana the only ones who knew about these
Most of these jungle chemicals are still unknown to scientists outside the forest. The forests are like a big library and the people of the forest are the librarians. But now the library is being burnt and the librarians massacred. In the process the world is undergoing a kind of amnesia. The extinction of traditional knowledge is even faster than the extinction of species.
When did you begin campaigning to protect the forests and their people?
In 1969, after a trip up the Amazon, I wrote an article for Encyclopaedia Britannica on South American Indians. I called them the "undisputed authority on their environment", and said they should profit from their own knowledge. I think I was the first person to propose that. The Brazilian generals in charge of the country at the time were angry, but that article was responsible for the formation of the Primitive Peoples' Fund, which became Survival International. I became involved in finding ways to develop these fruits of the forest for the benefit of the people who knew about them. I got involved with a charity called Earthlife and later set up the Foundation for Ethnobiology. In the 1980s, I went into the Peruvian Amazon with the first luggable computer, the Osborne 1, and began helping villagers along the Tambopata river to record rainforest species and what they were used for. At that time I had a lot of support from environmentalists, who saw recognising the fruits of the forest as the best way to save them. I became a fellow at Green College, part of the University of Oxford.
In the 1990s, you began to collaborate with your own people in Guyana. But
now they have turned on you. Why?
After most of them were wiped out in the 1918 flu epidemic, my mother's tribe was adopted by the Wapishana, who live along the border between Guyana and Brazil. I wanted to help the Wapishana and the nearby Macushi, who used curare as an arrow poison, to sell their knowledge to the outside world without being exploited by governments and western multinationals. To do that I needed to establish legal title to their genetic heritage. If someone else established patents, I wouldn't be able to research those genes, and the Wapishana, the Macushi and other tribes would lose ownership of their knowledge. So I applied for patents for my discoveries. I had spent my own money on research, and gathered local knowledge about the plants' qualities myself. The idea was to share the proceeds with the tribes. But then it started to go wrong. Wapishana people who I did not know turned against me and my intended collaborators, the local Amerindian trust. They called me a biopirate. Outside Guyana, politicians, scientists and even environmentalists disowned me. I was doing research in Venezuela at the time, and was thrown out at 24 hours' notice
for being a "colonial scientist". In the end I let the maintenance fees for the patent applications lapse.
What had gone wrong?
One problem was the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and was intended to protect the knowledge of forest tribes from exploitation. It effectively nationalised plant resources. But that gave governments control, and they didn't want independent people like me involved. So officials who were happily conniving in the destruction of the rainforests and indigenous peoples were accusing me of being a biopirate.
What about the Wapishana and the Macushi? Did they benefit from banishing
No. The Wapishana have no income now except tourism. And they are forgetting about their own natural forest drugs. The young women think it is much more chic to get contraceptives from the district nurse than the greenheart tree. It's as if I never existed. Local scientists are now redoing the research I did 30 years ago. I still believe that rupununine could be a hugely valuable resource for the world--it might prevent malaria - as well as making money for
Guyana. And it could be developed on a shoestring because all the essential
research has already been done by the forest communities. Instead, the
greenheart is being cut down for timber.
What do you put all this down to?
Governments in forest countries don't want people like me saying how useful the traditional medicinal plants are. In practice, they are in league with the big pharmaceutical companies. They get cheap drugs in return for allowing the drug companies the run of the forests, all under the protection of the Biodiversity Convention, and with the support of western environmentalists. The anti-biopiracy laws are not being used to protect the people of the forests and their knowledge, but to destroy them.
Conrad Gorinsky grew up in Rupununi, a village in southern Guyana. He studied botany and chemistry at Birkbeck, University of London, and Barts Hospital, before becoming a fellow at Green College, University of Oxford. He is a long-time campaigner for the rights of indigenous peoples and founded the
UK-based Foundation for Ethnobiology.