University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > The frog and the vine: indigenous knowledge, biomedical innovation, and biopiracy in Latin America

The frog and the vine: indigenous knowledge, biomedical innovation, and biopiracy in Latin America

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The nexus of ‘western’ and ‘indigenous’ knowledge, toxicity, and biodiversity has transformed biomedical fields ranging from drug development to microbial resistance, yet it has not been marked by just research practices. This chapter delineates the intersections of indigenous and western knowledge practices in relation to toxic organisms, in order to advance insights that shed light into the ways in which biomedicine has been (or failed to be) committed to justice and solidarity. Due to their porous nature and ability to travel across boundaries, toxins – in the forms of potent and potentially poisonous plants and animals – are an ideal place from which to inquire into questions of justice and knowledge. The use of indigenous knowledge of nature for research illuminates central tensions in biomedical research practices today. Despite policies such as Genomic Sovereignty doctrine, due to histories of manipulation, lack of benefit sharing, and limited indigenous research representation, the relationship between indigenous and western knowledges is fraught with suspicion and conflict. One particularly salient concern is that patents filed in the global north have claimed ownership over indigenous knowledge and organisms, thus exploiting inequalities and enabling proprietary colonial uses of biodiversity in Latin America (Thacker 2008; Hayden 2003; Chavez 2012; Schwartz-Marin and Restrepo 2013). Drawing on ethnographic & historical methodologies, this chapter interrogates landmark cases linked with biopiracy and medical innovation: 1) Ayahuasca and 2) the Poison Dart Frog. These two organisms have been identified as important cases, because both have been subject to patents (Tidwell 2002; Males 2015), are at the centre of significant biomedical investment, and are deeply embedded in the ancestral knowledge of Latin American indigenous groups, as well as biomedical innovations and forms of capitalist profit making via pharmaceutical research.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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