In the nineteenth century, the Guajajara tribe of Brazil discovered the medicinal qualities of a native plant called Pilocarpus jaborandi. For decades, the Guajajara refined the medicinal uses of the plant, specifically for the treatment of glaucoma. Knowledge of the plant’s medicinal qualities was acquired by pharmaceutical researchers, and both American and German pharmaceutical companies have profited from the pharmacological appropriation and patenting of the plant for various medical purposes (ten Kate and Laird 73). Brazil earns $25 million per year for exporting the plant (Posey and Dutfield 53). Today, the supply of Pilocarpus jaborandi is significantly depleted and unavailable to the Guajajara, however, the Guajajara people make up the majority of the indigenous workers tasked with harvesting the plant (ten Kate and Laird 73). Darrell A. Posey and Graham Dutfield report that the Guajajara people have allegedly been subjected to peonage and slavery by representatives of the company involved in the trade of Pilocarpus (53). The case of the Guajajara represents a narrative of exploitation and disenfranchisement that appears over and over again in discourses relevant to indigenous and western knowledge systems. More specifically, the case of the Guajajara is an example of biocolonialism, a trend in western bioscience in which indigenous knowledge of biological resources (like medicinal plants) as well as indigenous biological material (genetic material) is extracted and patented by Western scientific, medical, and pharmaceutical institutions without granting credit or remuneration to the indigenous sources (see Environmental Colonialism).

Biocolonialism and New Imperial Science

Biocolonialism describes the cultural, political, and social ramifications of what philosopher of science Laurelyn Whitt terms a “new imperial science” (xiv). New imperial science is embedded in and at the service of the western capitalist enterprise and follows on the heels of the scientific methods and practices of late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century science that enabled and justified the expansion of empire and the oppression and exploitation of indigenous peoples. Biocolonialism emerges from the ideological, political, and practical structures of new imperial science that enable the appropriation of indigenous knowledge and biological resources for the benefit of western biomedical industries and corporations. Biocolonialism is a mode of neocolonialism in which the relationship of dominance and oppression is predicated upon the exploitation of indigenous human bodies and living organisms for profitable biological material (Whitt 20). Biocolonialism follows the rubric of cultural imperialism, in which the “dominant culture seeks to establish itself in indigenous cultures by appropriating, mining, and redefining what is distinctive in, or constitutive of them” (Whitt 3). Biocolonialism’s imperialism, however, takes place on a biological level. As Vandana Shiva explains, “The colonies have now been extended to the interior spaces, the “genetic codes” of life-forms from and plants to animals, including humans” (3). Under the phenomenon of biocolonialism, the contested site of colonization becomes the cellular and chemical components of life and identity. Critics of biocolonialism refer specifically to the appropriation of indigenous knowledge and genetic material for the benefit of the western biomedical industry, but Shiva’s invocation of “interior spaces” as sites of colonial aggression certainly falls within the realm of discourses about the colonization of the human body, such as Deepika Bahri’s Postcolonial Biology: Psyche and Flesh After Empire (2017), which discusses the plasticity of the colonized body and the corporeal consequences of colonial mimicry. 

Biocolonialism and Biopiracy

Although the terms are used synonymously in some instances, biocolonialism is closely related to but distinct from biopiracy, a term which is used by Vandana Shiva to describe the legally-sanctioned (through national and international intellectual property rights laws and protections) theft of biological knowledge and genetic material for corporate profit (2-3). To elucidate, Shiva offers several examples of the patenting of indigenous peoples’ cell lines by western scientists and pharmaceutical companies. Clare Barker effectively elucidates the difference between biopiracy and biocolonialism: “[Shiva’s] preferred term for this harvesting of genetic riches, ‘biopiracy,’ underscores questions of ownership, theft, and potential criminality, while biocolonialism places more emphasis on continuities between contemporary science and western colonialism, and on politicized resistance movements” (143). If biocolonialism describes the wider systemic structures characteristic of the embeddedness of biomedicine and capitalism, then biopiracy is a key symptom of the system.

The Human Genome Diversity Project

The key focal point of scholars and activists keen on elucidating the phenomena associated with biocolonialism is the Human Genome Diversity Project (Diversity Project). The Diversity Project began at Stanford University in 1991 with the proposal of renowned geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza to collect biological samples from diverse populations around the world in order to build a database of human genetic diversity which could then be used for further genetic research. The Diversity Project generated a list of roughly 700 indigenous groups worldwide that would be the specific targets of the biological sampling. Geneticists argue that isolated subgroups, such as indigenous populations isolated by natural barriers (like the Havasupai who reside in the Grand Canyon) are the most genetically-useful populations for scientific study. The proposed project was immediately met with outrage by indigenous communities and activists, who criticized in particular the justification of the project and cited previous abuses of indigenous genetic material by the western biomedical industry. Especially damning was the language used in an early iteration of the project proposal in which indigenous persons were described as “isolates of historic interest” on the verge of extinction and therefore essential targets of biological sampling and genetic research (qtd. in Guerrero 172). Such dehumanizing language appears in a document which appeared at an early workshop of the project in 1992:

many populations around the world, especially isolates living traditional lifestyles, will soon disappear as independent units, because of disease, economic or physical deprivation, genetic admixture, or cultural assimilation. In this report, we refer to such groups as ‘isolates of historic interest’ because they represent groups that should be sampled before they disappear as integral units so that their role in human history can be preserved. (qtd. in Guerrero 178)

Outrage from indigenous communities and activists was consistently directed toward the callous prioritization of mining indigenous genetic material for research purposes over the endangerment of the very populations themselves. M.A. Jaimes Guerrero has argued that the Diversity Project is masquerading as a biodiversity initiative for the purpose of exploiting indigenous populations as culturally and biologically distinct entities ripe for research and experimentation for the sake of commercial profit (177).

Biocolonialism and Bioethics

In 1995, UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) issued a strong criticism of the Diversity Project and advised UN organizations to withhold endorsement of the project. The IBC acknowledged the scientific significance of the project but cited the Diversity Project’s failure to clearly explain how the project would benefit indigenous peoples (Butler 373). Debra Harry, a representative of the Indigenous People’s Biodiversity Network who spoke at the IBC meeting, cited the Declaration of Helsinki, a code of ethical principles formed in 1964 by the World Medical Association for the protection of human subjects in biomedical research. The Declaration of Helsinki along with the Nuremberg Code (1974) and the Belmont Report (1974) form a canon of contemporary biomedical research ethics, and these documents have influenced the laws, regulations, and institutional practices that protect human subjects of biomedical research. Bioethicists have been vocal critics of the wider narrative of the exploitation of indigenous persons and persons of color and the commodification of human bodies and body parts for the sake of biomedical advancement. Harriet A. Washington chronicles the history of medical experimentation and exploitation of Black Americans in the United States. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one such familiar case, in which a population of poor Black men in rural Alabama were deliberately denied effective treatment for syphilis for a thirty-year period (1932-1972). A similar U.S.-led experiment took place in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, in which more than 5,000 Guatemala people were deliberately infected with various sexually-transmitted infections without their consent. Both experiments were designed to study the natural course of the diseases in question.

In 1951, a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with and sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During the course of her treatment, a sample of tissue from Lacks’s tumor was taken without consent and against the expressed wishes of Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, Sr., who had refused the doctors’ initial request to take cell samples. After her death, Henrietta Lacks’s cells, now called HeLa cells, were used to produce the first immortal cell line, a community of cells that can replicate and grow for long periods of time due to mutation. Henrietta’s cells proved invaluable to the scientific community that stole them from her. Jonas Salk utilized HeLa cells to test and perfect the polio vaccine. Today, the HeLa cell line remains the most important and commonly-used cell line in biomedical research. Rebecca Skloot estimates that by 2009 (58 years after Henrietta’s death) more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research that involved the use of HeLa cells. Henrietta’s identity was kept secret, and the Lacks family was uninformed of the unauthorized appropriation of Henrietta’s body until 1975. Although the HeLa cells were never patented, the wide proliferation and use of HeLa in the biomedical industry represents decades of profitable global research.

Ethical codes like the Declaration of Helsinki were intended to safeguard against human rights abuses in biomedical research, but the appropriation and inappropriate use of Indigenous genetic material has continued. In 1989, Arizona State University researchers were invited to the Havasupai reservation to investigate and address the high incidence of diabetes among the Havasupai people. The researchers’ proposed protocol included diabetes education as well as blood samples and genetic testing. Fifteen years later, the Havasupai learned that the samples they provided had been used to investigate the incidence of schizophrenia in the population. Researchers had also studied interbreeding within the tribe and had used the data to draw conclusions about the migratory history of the tribe. The Havasupai sued the university and its Board of Regents, alleging that the researches had improperly utilized their genetic material without their consent and for purposes that were not illustrated in the original protocol (Washington 293). In 2010, the university Board of Regents agreed to a settlement that payed $700,000 to 41 tribe members and returned remaining blood samples to the tribe (Harmon A1).

In 1993, scientists from Axys Pharmaceuticals, a California-based company, visited the remote archipelago Tristan da Cuhna and collected blood samples from the native population. Because of their isolation and history of inbreeding, the people of Tristan are a genetically distinct population with medical peculiarities, such as asthma, that make them particularly interesting to genetic researchers and the pharmaceutical industry (Washington 289). Similar to the Arizona State researchers, the Axys researchers misrepresented their intentions to the Tristan population as a plan to address the island’s unique health challenges. When they returned to the U.S., the researchers used DNA-analysis tools to isolate and patent an asthma gene. Currently Axys owns patent rights to the entire genome of the Tristan population (Washington 290). Axys has continued to patent the genomes of other small, isolated populations around the world, including a Jewish community in India, a substantial group of Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island, a large family living in the Brazilian highlands, and a large family living in a Chinese village (Washington 290).

As examples of the exploitation and commodification of indigenous persons and persons of color by the American biomedical industry, these cases paint a picture of the ways in which the legacies of colonial violence manifest in an era of new imperial science as the scientific and commercial consumption of bodies and biological material on the global market.

Works Cited

  • Bahri, Deepika. Postcolonial Biology: Psyche and Flesh After Empire. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Barker, Clare. “‘The Ancestors Within’: Genetics, Biocolonialism, and Medical Ethics in Patricia Grace’s Baby No-Eyes.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2013, pp. 141-58.
  • Butler, Declan. “Genetic diversity proposal fails to impress international ethics panel.” Nature, vol. 377, no. 6548, 1995, p. 373.
  • Guerrero, M.A. Jaimes. “Global Genocide and Biocolonialism: On the Effect of the Human Genome Diversity Project on Targeted Indigenous Peoples/Ecocultures as ‘Isolates of Historic Interest.’” Violence and the Body: Race, Gender, and the State, edited by Arturo J. Aldama, Indiana UP, 2002, pp. 171-88.
  • Harmon, Amy. “Indian Tribe Wins Fight to Limit Research of Its DNA.” New York Times, 22 April 2010, A1.
  • Posey, Darrell A., and Graham Dutfield. Beyond Intellectual Property: Toward Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. International Development Research Center, 1996.
  • Shiva, Vandana. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, South End Press, 1997.
  • ten Kate, Kerry, and Sarah A. Laird. The Commercial Use of Biodiversity: Access to Genetic
    Resources and Benefit-Sharing. Earthscan, 1999.
  • Washington, Harriet A. Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself
    and the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, Doubleday, 2011.
  • Whitt, Laurelyn. Science, Colonialism, and Indigenous Peoples: The Cultural Politics of Law and Knowledge, Cambridge UP, 2009.

Further Reading

  • Bahri, Deepika. Postcolonial Biology: Psyche and Flesh After Empire. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Bruyere, Vincent. “The Lived Exemplarity of HeLa: A Matter of Lifedeath.” Mosaic, 2015.
  • Gilroy, Paul. Postcolonial Melancholia. Columbia University Press, 2005. 
  • Ong, Aihwa, and Nancy N. Chen, eds. Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate. Duke University Press, 2010.
  • TallBear, Kim, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
  • Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Penguin, 2008.

Author: Mary Taylor Mann
Last edited: September 2020

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