1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
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  3. The Human Genre Project

Cesagen · Research

Indigenous Peoples and the Globalization of Genomics in Amazonia

Brian Wynne, Phil Macnaghten

Start date


Affiliated staff

Paul Oldham


Amazonia is one of the major locations of the world’s biodiversity and is home to myriad indigenous peoples. In common with indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, the indigenous societies of Amazonia were devastated by the pandemics and violence which surrounded the arrival of Europeans from the 15th Century onwards. Members of these societies were subsequently denigrated as 'backwards' and 'primitive' and the resources within their lands and territories have commonly been appropriated in the name of ‘development’. The situation of Amazonian peoples and indigenous peoples around the world has been described by the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues as "…an affront to our common humanity".

Over the last twenty years Amazonian peoples have created new forms of organisation directed towards securing respect for their human rights. These organisations and networks range from the local to the national, regional and international levels. In particular, in the wake of the 1992 UNCED 'Earth Summit', indigenous peoples have become important actors in United Nations policy debates surrounding the environment and development. In the context of the rise of genomics a key focus of Amazonian indigenous rights activism has been debates surrounding traditional knowledge and genetic resources under the Convention on Biological Diversity.


The research questions associated with the project were:

  1. What do Amazonian peoples think about efforts to document their knowledge and intellectual property claims surrounding plant genomics?
  2. What particular factors, such as cosmology and conceptions of human-environment relatedness, shape indigenous peoples perspectives on the globalisation of plant genomics?
  3. What roles are played by wider networks of indigenous peoples organisations on the national, regional and international level in shaping Amazonian peoples conceptions and responses to the globalisation of plant genomics?
  4. What impacts does indigenous activism have in shaping debates surrounding knowledge and genomics under the Convention on Biological Diversity and related policy arenas.


  • Ethnographic fieldwork using participatory approaches with the Piaroa (Wothïha) of the Venezuelan Amazon.
  • Analysis of indigenous peoples perspectives on historic cases of intellectual property claims: Ayahuasca (hallucinogen – psychotherapy), curare (arrow poison - anaesthesiology), barbasco (fish poison – heart blocker), Greenheart (antibiotic).
  • Local and national level workshops in collaboration with the Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of Amazonas (ORPIA).
  • Mapping of networks which inform and shape indigenous peoples perspectives on the globalisation of genomics.
  • Interviews with regional and national level institutional actors engaged in plant genomics.
  • Statistical analysis of intellectual property claims surrounding traditional knowledge and plant genomics.
  • Ethnographic fieldwork to examine discourses surrounding knowledge and genetics under the Convention on Biological Diversity.


  • Publicly funded researchers and public research organisations are increasingly seeking to commercialise biodiversity/traditional knowledge arising from research with indigenous peoples through intellectual property instruments
  • The global scale of intellectual property claims over biodiversity and traditional knowledge is much higher than has been thought and is accelerating
  • Limited consideration has been given to the externalities generated by the patenting of biodiversity and traditional knowledge and their impacts upon indigenous peoples' value systems and relationships with researchers
  • Indigenous peoples in Amazonia and elsewhere are confronted by the problem of managing research relationships with publicly and privately funded researchers directed towards commercial purposes. Debates under the Convention on Biological Diversity and within the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) suggest possible ways forward in creating constructive research relationships grounded in principles of participation, equity, trust and respect for human rights. Nevertheless, the challenges for indigenous peoples in navigating this complex terrain remain formidable.


Macnaghten, P. (2004) ‘Animals in their nature: a case study of public attitudes on animals, genetic modification and “nature”’, Sociology, 38: 3 pp 533-551.Macnaghten, P. (2004) Contested natures and everyday practices, Viken A† Pedersen K† (eds) in Nature and Identity, Norwegian Academic Press, Oslo.Oldham, P. (2003) ‘Representación y organización politíca moderna de los indígenas de Amazonas: una re-evaluación’, Ales C and Chiappino (eds) in Caminos Cruzados: Ensayos en Antropología Social, Etnoecología y Etnoeducación , Paris: IRD.

Further information

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International Regime on Access to Genetic Resources