Professionalism/Conrad Gorinsky, the Wapishana, and Biopiracy

Biopiracy is the commercial exploitation of biological or genetic material, as medicinal plant extracts, usually without compensating the indigenous peoples or countries from which the material or relevant knowledge is obtained [1]. It falls under the category of Bioprospecting, the umbrella term for discovering and commercializing new products based on biological resources. It usually involves examining organic material from exotic environments such as rain forests or hot springs. Bioprospecting has existed since prehistoric times, as people examined plants and deduced their medicinal properties. It's extremely significant today, as over the past 30 years 46% of new chemical entities marketed worldwide have come from substances found in nature [2].

The line between Bioprospecting and Biopiracy is sometimes hard to distinguish. In 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity was established in order to promote bilateral agreements between indigenous areas and Western researchers. They have proven successful in helping indigenous areas receive benefits from pharmaceutical companies. However, some argue that these bilateral agreements are not sufficient in preventing biopiracy due to the inability to monitor contracts, adequately inform indigenous people, and ensure that they receive a significant portion of revenue [3].

Cunaniol and Rupununine


The present case of potential biopiracy centers on two chemical drugs - cunaniol and rupununine - that were extracted from plants used by the Wapishana tribe by the biochemist Conrad Gorinsky.

The Wapishana


The Wapishana people are an indigenous Guyanese and Brazilian Amazonian tribe. The greenheart tree, from which rupununine is derived, and the cunani bush tree, from which cunaniol is derived, are considered sacred and serve important practical and ritualistic functions for the Wapishana. The tribe uses a greenheart nut preparation called tipir as a contraceptive and to treat hemorrhage and infection. The tribe uses cunani, which is toxic to fish but harmless to humans, to facilitate fishing. The Wapishana independently identified the usefulness of these plants and has specific rules for their usage, which is meant to be conducted only by Wapishana. They do not believe in the commercial ownership of land or knowledge.

Conrad Gorinsky


The son of a German rancher and an Atorad woman, Conrad Gorinsky was raised on ranch lands near the Wapishana people's land. Since Wapishana membership is social rather than hereditary, Gorinsky was never considered Wapishana. The Atorad tribe is now all but extinct. He studied and received his PhD in biochemistry at Oxford University and later returned to Guyana to learn about the Wapishana's use of plants. He learned about tipir and cunani from a Wapishana guide and studied the plants' chemical extracts after which he identified two bioactive chemicals with therapeutic potential which he named rupununine and cunaniol. He applied for and was granted patents on both chemicals in both the United States and Europe [4] [5], and he did so without the consent of the Wapishana. Dr Gorinsky's primary goal in patenting molecules naturally generated by living eco-systems was to demonstrate that the living eco-systems carried a value beyond the logging value of the forest.

Response of the Wapishana


The Wapishana were less than thrilled upon hearing about the patents on their revered plants: "When the Wapishana chiefs heard what the biochemist had done, they accused him of stealing the knowledge of their ancestors and elders in order to sell it to pharmaceutical companies. As one Wapishana woman put it, 'This knowledge has always been with the Wapishana. It's part of our heritage and now it is being taken from us without payment.'" [6] The Wapishana contested both of Gorinsky's patents but were only able to get the patent on cunaniol revoked. Ultimately though, Gorinsky let all of the patent fees concerning both his cunaniol and rupununine lapse due to the alienation by and pressure of the Wapishana and conservation groups.

Biopiracy: Good or Bad?


The use of “traditional knowledge” to advance Western medicine has resulted in the development of many influential drugs such as pilocarpine (from the Brazilian plant Pilocarpus jaborandi) [7], albuterol, salmeterol, and isoproterenol (from the plant Ephedra used in Chinese traditional medicine) [8], and prostratin (from a Samoan plant).[9] The distinction between biopiracy and bioprospecting is sometimes difficult to distinguish, but biopiracy usually involves the commercial exploitation of indigenous people. Valuable chemical compounds derived from plants are more easily identifiable when collected with indigenous knowledge. Approximately 1/10,000 chemicals derived from mass screening of plants, animals, and microbes results in a potentially profitable drug. Alternatively, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a company that collects plants by talking to indigenous people and watching them work, reports a 50% success rate on screening of plants for useful bioactivity.[3] Often samples are collected and new drugs derived without considering the rights or well-being of the indigenous people who open their lands and cultures to foreign bioprospectors, as was the case with Conrad Gorinksy and the Wapishana. The following are two short cases that demonstrate the difficulty of distinction.

Eli Lilly

Eli Lilly derived vinblastine and vincristine from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle plant in the 1950s. Eli Lilly & Co. began marketing the extract as Oncovin in the early 1960s to treat Leukemia and Lyphoma. Eli Lilly makes revenues reported of about $100 million per year off of the extracts, yet neither the shamans who gave the knowledge to Lilly’s researcher nor the Madagascar government have received any type of payments[10].

The Hoodia Cactus

For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia cactus to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips. Used extensively in the San region in South Africa, the South African Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) patented Hoodia’s appetite-suppressing element as a potential treatment for obesity in 1995. In 1997, they licensed the element to Phytopharm, a British Biotech company, who then licensed it to Pfizer in 1998. In 2002, the San filed a lawsuit claiming that they were being exploited by this use of their knowledge. Although they now receive compensation, it is not much, as they only receive 6-8% of the royalties made by CSIR from Pfizer. As a result, Pfizer is not affected by the lawsuit filed by the San [10].

Biopiracy benefits most while harming few


Defenders of biopiracy argue that there is no legal basis for prohibition of this behavior, as traditional knowledge does not constitute private property. Jim Chen, a Professor at Michigan State University College of Law, writes “ethnobiological knowledge already lies in a public domain of sorts, albeit perhaps a very small public consisting of the members of an indigenous tribe whose culture itself is endangered.” [11] Pharmaceutical companies use the endangerment of these tribes in the justification of their practices, claiming rights to produce such medicines because they possess the biotechnology capable of making genetic and biological assets marketable that indigenous populations do not currently or ever will have. Among these companies are Eli Lilly and Pfizer.

Utilitarian ethics also claim biopiracy is permissible because the benefits outweigh the risks. They assert that medicinal value is brought to the first world without imposing significant expenses to the indigenous cultures from whose knowledge a drug is derived. Drug patenting in developed nations ostensibly does not prevent the native peoples from continuing to use their traditional application of the biological compound, and therefore no real harm is done.[11] Scientists argue that advancements in science and human health can be made while causing minimal detriment to people in the third world or they can allow those in the first world to continue to suffer. One scientist, who was criticized for going into the Amazon seeking new anti-cancer compounds without obtaining the informed consent of the indigenous society, offered the following defense: “While we continue to talk about worry about biopiracy, fewer people are out there actually studying the Amazon, which is a serious form of scientific neglect. Of course biopiracy happens, but we have to balance this against not researching the rainforest at all. Ultimately that is much more damaging to mankind.” [12]

Biopiracy harms indigenous people and arises from lapses of professionalism


A report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) "suggests a figure of $5.4 billion" that biopiracy cheats third world countries out of per year. [13]. Big pharmaceutical companies exploit developing countries through biopiracy wherein they pay developing governments millions of dollars for exclusive rights to biodiversity prospecting and then pay them millions of dollars in royalties while the companies make billions of dollars in profit. Developing countries agree to short term gains since they don't have the technology to utilize their own biodiversity resources as lucratively as the companies. Patent and IP rights secured by the companies restrict the countries' ownership of their own resources and their sovereignty is diminished.

Clear guidelines and protocols for engaging in mutually beneficial arrangements concerning the commercialization of indigenous knowledge combined with proper compensation of indigenous people and developing countries are contained in the Nagoya protocol, adopted into the Convention on Biological Diversity on October 29, 2010. [14]. As of the date of its adoption, the United States has neither signed nor ratified the protocol. Further, US patent law does not consider oral tradition, or non-documented IP or prior art, when considering new patent applications. The disregard of traditional knowledge as a form of prior art and the failure of the US to acknowledge international guidelines on benefit-sharing with indigenous peoples facilitate biopiracy events and allowed Gorinsky to act in his own, rather than in both his and the Wapishana's, best interests.

In a 2006 interview, Gorinsky claimed that he "wanted to help the sell their knowledge to the outside world without being exploited by governments and western multinationals" and that to do that he "needed to establish legal title to their genetic heritage." [15]. This contrasts sharply with his statement in a 2000 interview: "Tough, isn't it?...I was not the only person looking at the greenheart...[the Wapishana] just inherited the greenheart. They don't own it. I have invested in this with my own money." [16]. The disparity in these sentiments calls Gorinsky's integrity into question. Through a lapse in his professional training and a breach of trust in his exclusive relationship with his Wapishana guides and teachers, Gorinsky sought to profit from the traditional knowledge of the Wapishana without a their permission and without a clear intention to compensate them. These lapses, both on the individual and corporate levels, harm indigenous people and developing countries by outsourcing the control of biodiversity resources, many of which form the foundation of the economies and livelihoods of both groups.



Biopiracy provides a good example where the application of stakeholder management is needed. Ed Freeman states “Every business creates, and sometimes destroys, value for customers, suppliers, employees, communities and financiers. The idea that business is about maximizing profits for shareholders is outdated and doesn’t work well, as the recent global financial crisis has taught us…The task of executives to create as much value as possible without resorting to tradeoffs. Great companies endure because they manage to get stakeholder interests aligned in the same direction.” [17] Pharmaceutical companies must learn to align their interests with those of the indigenous cultures or risk losing access to the vast biodiversity and traditional knowledge that they possess.

Large-scale genetic sequencing technology enables multinational companies to more effectively and lucratively utilize biodiversity resources that are generally located in developing countries that lack such technology. This technological gap facilitates inequitable distribution of the profits of biodiversity resources in cases where the companies are able to negotiate highly profitable deals skewed towards their own profit. This can be generalized to demonstrate the potential for exploitation that those with technological means may engage in at the expense of those without.

Despite the disparity in the technological and economical means of the stakeholders, the Convention on Biological Diversity has acknowledged the threat and extent of exploitation that arises through biopiracy. The adoption of the Nagoya protocol [14] facilitates equitable distribution of bioversity resources and the profits therein derived through their utilization. Corporate responsibility and indigenous advocacy can work together to ensure fair utilization of knowledge to the benefit of all.


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  15. Pearce, F. "Interview: Bio-pirate or saviour of native knowledge?" New Scientist. July 22, 2006.
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