Native People Denounce BioPiracy of Wild Rice

Indian Country Today
July 12, 2002,
Tribe Says Don't Meddle with Wild Rice

Add gene pollution to the list of woes threatening valuable indigenous
crops and wild organisms, from manoomin, or wild rice, to corn and even
fish, to name a few.

Already the woes are many for wild rice habitats. Agricultural chemical
runoff, lower water tables, boat traffic, human overpopulation and other
conditions impact the health and could threaten the ultimate survival of
the exquisite and culturally rich manoomin habitats. Gene pollution is a
new danger, perhaps the most insidious. Most recently, the issuance of two
patents on wild rice, secured by the Norcal Wild Rice Company in
California, claims property rights on "cyto-plasmic male sterility," and
the propagation of any wild rice plants bearing this characteristic. As
well, University of Minnesota scientists have nearly finished "mapping" the
wild rice genome, which critics claim adds to the danger of genetic
manipulation of the wild rice crop. Anishinaabeg people are responding with
some urgency on the issue, which certainly looks quite different from their
cultural perspective. Asked Robert Vanzile, Mole Lake Ojibwe, of the
scientists who have managed to gain patents on a living organism: "Who gave
you a right to do this? Did you talk to Wenaboojoo? Who did you talk to?
Wild rice is sacred to our people"

As humans began to be able to move genes from one organism to another, the
genetic engineering revolution exploded. In a classic case of science
speeding way ahead of human value systems, we now see human genes in hogs
(looking to breed them leaner and taller), trout genes in tomatoes and
countless other free-for-all applications, any one of which could lead to
unpredictable results. The ethical and spiritual questions being asked by
tribal people only deepen and widen the concerns already expressed by many
scientists and academic observers.

The Anishinaabeg are completely correct to be alarmed. Just months ago, the
story broke in Chiapas, Mexico of hardy, old time corn varieties being
contaminated with genetically engineered corn. Indigenous corn varieties,
some in that region from which very early corn seed is believed to have
originated, have now been permanently contaminated. There was great scandal
over the issue, but great initial damage had been done to an ancient
treasure. Scientist estimate that genetically engineered wild rice released
into the natural beds could contaminate right to the core or heart of the
wild rice genome within five years. For instance, a recent Ohio State
University study warned that weeds may be acquiring traits, such as
resistance to pests and longer life-spans, passed on to them by
"genetically improved crops."

In June 2000, 10,000 genetically engineered salmon, which expectedly joined
the wild salmon population, diluted its gene pool and likely introduced
"stupid" genes that decrease competitive drive and weaken resistance to new
diseases. This kind of transfer is predictable now, increasingly
inevitable. What are not at all predictable are the potential creations,
and potential monstrosities, that humans playing Creator for profit and
without much apparent restraint could bring into existence.

The method of tinkering with genetics to thus gain legal standing to patent
a living organism is troublesome, even onerous enough; it crashes directly
against the whole notion of collective community knowledge, of Native
peoples and natural world development of food and medicinal crops. As
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe President Norman Deschampe warned in 1998, in
early condemnation of the genetic research being conducted by the
University of Minnesota, "The genetic variants of wild rice found naturally
occurring on the waters in the territories ceded by the Minnesota Chippewa
Tribe to the State of Minnesota are a unique treasure that has been
carefully protected by the people of our tribe for centuries."

Minnesota, which ranks second behind California, sells four to six million
pounds of wild rice per year. Commercially produced "paddy rice" offers
very stiff competition to wild rice producers.

Indian sovereign and cultural rights over crops, medicinal plants and other
natural world knowledge are a potentially powerful base from which to
challenge the present tendency to allow science to ride roughshod over
indigenous spiritual and ethical concerns. Knowledge gained through many
generations is a cultural patrimony. Indigenous peoples, worldwide, retain
great reservoirs of knowledge of bio-diverse habitats and genetic
materials. As traditional elders speak directly to the spiritual issues
involved in the manipulation of genetic life, Native observers call for
Indian scientific involvement and/or veto power in any research into their
tribal properties. As reported by the Mazina'igan Chronicle, one speaker
from White Earth Reservation told gathered Ojibwe during a protest rally in
late May, "They say they can improve upon this gift the Creator gave us.
But the potential for catastrophe is just too high."

We encourage and support any and every Native peoples who actively protect
the bio-diversity of their indigenous geography. We commend the efforts of
the Anishinaabeg to challenge the potential dangers to the core genome of
their wild rice relative, manoomin, along whom they developed and whom they
are culturally instructed to protect.

The intensely important issue of bio-piracy should be studied and
confronted by all Native peoples whose traditional covenant with nature
sustains. There is a lot to study and understand of the scientific elements
involved, but it is worth it. This is an issue that refers specifically to
the origins of life and the inscription of cellular knowledge -- original
instructions of the most fundamental kind -- with implications for the
biological (natural) structure of life itself. This is a topic about which
Native thinkers will have a lot to say. It is also one in which tribal
governments will need to act to protect their natural world relatives.


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