Wednesday, February 23, 2005


An academic group of anthropologists and biologists with a well-funded and well-planed mission ran into problems with a local organization of alternative or traditional healers. The anthropologists were funded by NIH and the National Science Foundation. They were seeking identification of and sustainable harvest of pharmacologically active plants, identified by traditional use and laboratory and pharmacological testing of others. The technology and economic interest in the result of the research was to be kept with the local communities, a sustainable harvest and eco-development to the benefit of the indigenous people of the Maya Highland.

All the local communities agreed until the organization of traditional healers and midwives got wind of the project. A political organization and for-profit guild, Consejo de medicos y Parteras Traditionales de Chiapas or COMPITCH felt threatened by the scientific intrusion. They enlisted the help of another NGO, RAFI and later Global Exchange to help block the bio-economic development project. The witch doctors felt threatened perhaps by the science of medicine and the loss of their own secrets, privilege and economic position. There may be more here than meets the eye but NIH hardly suffers a reputation for exploitation. Global Exchange however called this group of anthropologists, with NIH sanction, bio-pirates.

What seems interesting is the apparent reversal of roles between scientific medicine and alternative medicine on the one hand and the NGO for bio-diversity shut out by the NGO against globalization. Some NGOs may be more NG than GO.

Human Organization, Journal / Society for Applied Anthropology, vol 63, No. 4, 2004