RENDERED 21: Maca Root
Biopiracy and the Majority + Minority Worlds
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The idea for month's essay was born from a conversation I had a few months ago. "Girl talk," if you will. Sitting around a table, coffee cups in hand, where pithier, more frank conversations are wont to happen. I was listening to a few acquaintances of mine as they discussed the sensitive issue of fertility. One woman, having had her share of difficulty in that arena, decisively declared to another: "You know what you should try? Maca! It worked wonders for me and my husband--a couple months of taking this maca root supplement, and we finally conceived! Oh, I recommend it to everyone."
I, a happily child-free woman, had nothing to contribute to this exchange... but I was certainly intrigued. Another one of those so-called 'miracle cures'? I wondered to myself. My initial reaction was one of suspicion: I detest the corporate zeal to capitalize on anxieties around fertility and what it supposedly means to "be a woman."
Maca, huh? I decided to look more closely and sure enough, at my local bobo organic shop, as well as in my pharmacy's supplement aisle, there it was: capsules of powdered maca root (origin unknown).
A basic Internet search on "maca root" gives listicles of information of dubious veracity, espousing its miraculous supposed benefits: boosting fertility, increasing libido, "male enhancement," and so on.
A more intensive Internet search brought up terms like "bioprospecting," "biopiracy" and documentaries about maca root in its region of origin, the mountain highlands of Perú. And voilà, the intrigue drove me down the research rabbit hole that marks the inception of so many of these RENDERED essays.
Maca root (Lepidium meyenii), colloquially known as "Peruvian ginseng," is a root that grows in the high altitudes of the central Andes mountains, notably in Perú's Junín region. From the brassica family (like mustard), maca grows despite the cold, the intense sunlight, and the high winds. Likely domesticated between 1,300 and 2,000 years ago, it was first mentioned in the texts of Spanish conquistadores in 1553.
The local economy in Junín relies on maca root cultivation and ranching. There, maca is cultivated not only as a foodstuff, but also for its medicinal properties.
In fact, clinical trials have shown that maca can have positive effects on fertility (increasing sperm count and mobility, depending on the type of maca), libido, memory, and even metabolism and skin protection from UV radiation.
As covered in this Vice documentary from 2017, Chinese pharmaceutical companies took interest in maca for its purported health benefits. Merchants moved into the region, bought up a bunch of maca plants and seeds, then left a few years later to cultivate and process the plant back in China.
In recent years, Chinese pharmaceutical companies like Naturex have been filing patents on maca. An anti-biopiracy task force in Perú is challenging these patents, with mixed success, and seeking compensation for Peruvians whose livelihoods have been affected has proven to be an uphill battle.
Of course, Chinese companies aren't the only ones trying to secure profits on maca root. The US-American pharmaceutical company PureWorld, Inc. secured a patent not only for extracts of the plant itself, but the extraction technique as well. (The patent has since been abandoned.)
As in the case of maca and other gifts of the earth, Majority World countries, which have more biodiversity and generally a more vulnerable population, have been open for exploitation by Minority World countries. Patents are another method of modern-day exploitation.
Corporate interests from the Minority World can swoop in and serve themselves like a buffet: take the seeds and plants that are used for sustenance, traditional medicine, or other cultural uses for the local population. They can interview the local population, gathering generations' worth of knowledge about the plants' uses, preparation methods, and cultivation strategies.
They can (in effect) steal from local people, then take their bounty back home, cultivate the plant there, and refine the extraction process down to a laboratory procedure, which can then be patented. If the patent extends internationally (which is more expensive, but those guys have the cash to spend), then that corporation holds the sole right to sell the plant, its seeds, and any medicines that contain compounds extracted from it.
This means that the people who originally had access to the plant can only legally buy it from the Corporate Guys, who ramp up the prices (yay capitalism!) and restrict access to plants that used to belong to them in the first place.
This is what biopiracy* looks like: stealing a natural resource from its place of origin, privatizing and monopolizing it, limiting or outright denying access to those from whom the resource was stolen, and denying those people any form of compensation for what was taken.
This isn't just your run-of-the-mill scam. From the corporate point of view, they are operating within a framework of legal ethics--it's legally possible to do it, and they stand to gain a profit, so why not do it?
More specifically, biopiracy happens when a company:
1. Does not seek permission to obtain the resource (eg. seeds)
2. Neglects to disclose its motivation for collecting the samples
3. Does not follow the specific country's laws
4. Fails to follow its own self-regulatory protocols
Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam first proposed using the term "majority world" to replace terms like "developing world" or "third world," which suggest that these countries are less able than their richer counterparts.* Terms like "developed/developing" also simultaneously erase the so-called "first world's" culpability in committing the violence, colonial theft, and exploitation that contributed to the current situations in Majority World countries, as well as downplaying their strengths, knowledge, skills, and resources they possess.
Minority World countries include the United States, the UK, France, Russia, and Japan. In other words, a small minority of humanity has given itself the right to decide who is "developed," and rewrite the language to paint itself as superior, and place itself as the ideal picture of progress, who continues to exert its influence over "underdeveloped" countries in the name of saving the world. The language erases the power imbalance expressly coordinated by, and for the benefit of, the Minority World. And they represent, in fact, the global minority.
The language we use is important, as well as the politics that would mold it for us. Who decides the vocabulary we use, the words at our disposition? Power wants to protect itself--it shrouds itself in the trappings it designs.
Maca was not the first example of biopiracy in Peru. Jesuit priests obtained bark from the cinchona tree (rich in quinine) from the indigenous Quechua, Cañari and Chimú peoples of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, along with the knowledge about how to use it. In the 1630's, they brought it back to Europe as a "miracle" cure for malaria. Access to cinchona was precious to the British, Dutch and French--a useful medicine that helped propel their troops in their imperialistic pursuits. Many trees were lost from aggressive harvesting of its bark. In the 19th century, the tree's seeds were stolen by the British and the Dutch, and planted in places like Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. It is the official tree of Peru and Ecuador.
I've simplified "biopiracy" quite a bit here, so let me back up a minute. All is not lost--there are some legal barriers and international accords in place to address biopiracy, like the Nagoya Protocol. (Its full name is the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity, full text available here.) This accord considers the genetic code of plants or animals unique to a country to be the intellectual property of the people. It gives governments the right to challenge patents that infringe upon that intellectual property.
As the first article of the document states:
"The objective of this Protocol is the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources [...]"
The problem is this: not all countries in the world are signatories to the Nagoya Protocol (non-parties include the United States, Canada, Russia, and Australia).
Different countries have different types of patents, which may or may not extend beyond the country's borders. Tracking down and appealing individual patents is a very long and difficult process. Even when a patent is successfully contested, the people who would stand to benefit from those profits... simply do not.
Corporations also have the cash to hire people to find, then exploit, legal loopholes. In the US, indigenous knowlege is considered to be public domain--it's old and communal, belonging to a group of people, which means it cannot be patented. However, private knowledge is new, based on a discovery or innovation, and therefore eligible to be patented--laboratory-based extraction techniques, for example.
Why don't more countries take action against biopiracy? Because sometimes, those corporate interests are backed by the government itself, which ends up hurting the citizens who are most affected.
Why can't various indigenous groups just take out their own patents and retake the control? Well, for one thing, patents are expensive, and often difficult to obtain. They are also temporary, so if the patent expires, the cycle could begin again. Finally, patents can be antithetical to the cultural values of some indigenous groups, where knowledge is considered communal and not to be privatized.
Because there are so many factors at play, and different initiatives in various countries that are mobilized to fight against biopiracy, it is difficult to generalize here. I will be discussing more specific cases in the next TIDBITS narrated essay.
I expect we will hear the terms "bioprospecting" and "biopiracy" more and more frequently in the coming years. Medicine relies heavily on Mother Nature--more than 70% of new drugs are made from something found in nature. And as long as power dynamics are skewed the way they are, with precious biodiverse regions located in Majority World countries, we should expect to hear more about this--for better, and for worse.
Those of us who use various powders, supplements, and tinctures for our various ills and woes can ask: Where did this come from? Consumers in Minority World countries can't be blamed for the indiscretion of their governments, but they can take notice of the lingering effects of these global struggles, sitting conveniently in the medicine cabinet.
*Shahidul Alam gave the name "Majority World" to the photo agency he co-created in 2004. It is a portal that showcases photography from the Majority World, and promotes the talent of its photographers, across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
*For those interested in learning about food sovereignty and movements fighting food injustice around the world, follow A Growing Culture on Instagram.
Thanks for reading. On October 2nd, paid subscribers will receive a narrated essay that continues this discussion on biopiracy, as seen in other examples around the world.
Announcement: I will be away for a few weeks in October, so my web shop will be on vacation from Oct 2-21. The next RENDERED essay will be released on Halloween (October 31st), followed immediately with TIDBITS for paid subscribers. My schedule has been a little erratic, but what can I say--I have a lot going on right now. Thank you for your patience.
During my time away, I'll be popping in periodically in my Instagram stories, as well as my Youtube channel. Subscribe here!
I'll be back, refreshed and ready to share more of what I've been working on behind the scenes. Until then, be well, take care of your heart, and I'll see you next month.
Gonzales GF. Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:193496. doi: 10.1155/2012/193496. Epub 2011 Oct 2. PMID: 21977053; PMCID: PMC3184420.
Landon, Amanda J., "Bioprospecting and Biopiracy in Latin America: The Case of Maca in Perú" (2007). Nebraska Anthropologist. 32.
"Maca Plant Pirates in Peru (HBO)." Youtube, Uploaded by Vice, 23 Jun 2017.
Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. "Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity: text and annex." United Nations Environmental Programme, 2011.
Traverso, Vittoria. "The tree that changed the world map." BBC Travel, 28 May 2020.
Vecchio, Rick. "Indigenous people, commerce clash over bioprospecting." Associated Press, 7 Jan 2007.