Debra Harry Stands Up For Native Knowledge

Debra Harry
Native peoples take aim at corporate piracy

The free market is supposed to reward innovation, but new ideas are hard to come by. So many corporations find it easier simply to tap traditional knowledge, patent it, stamp it with their logos, and sell it.

This is corporate piracy, and among those leading the fight against it is Debra Harry, who is Northern Paiute, from Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Harry heads the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB), an organization that advocates for the right of Indigenous peoples to own and protect their traditional knowledge.

A classic example of biopiracy, Harry says, is the Hoodia cactus, which the San peoples of Southern Africa have traditionally used to stave off hunger on long hunting trips. Hoping for a blockbuster anti-obesity drug, the South African government patented P57, the appetite-suppressing ingredient in Hoodia, and partnered with drug companies Phytopharm and Pfizer to develop a drug—all without the Sans' knowledge or consent. After international outcry, the San did secure a share of the profits, but it amounts to less than 0.003 percent of net sales. And the Sans' share comes from the government's portion of the profits, while the corporate share remains unchanged.

“Almost every genetic research project has a corporate profit motive behind it,” Harry says. “Even so-called public interest research at public universities is frequently privatized.”

Harry agrees that benefit-sharing agreements can bring a few much-needed resources to marginalized communities. But for many indigenous peoples, the promise of profits is not their principal goal; to them, she says, protection of sacred species and knowledge is paramount.

That's one reason the IPCB helped defeat the Human Genome
Diversity Project, which sought to take genetic samples from over 700 indigenous populations worldwide, essentially gifting any subsequent findings to researchers. Now, the IPCB is opposing a similar but more grandiose Genographic Project.

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