Tough search: bioprospecting in the Chiapas region of Mexico has proved to be fraught with difficulty. Credit: J. ROSENTHAL

Three years ago, a team of US scientists set out for the lush highlands of southern Mexico. The biochemical secrets of the region's plant life, together with the local Maya people's knowledge of how to exploit them, promised a rich pharmaceutical bounty. By staging plays to explain their work, the researchers hoped to avoid the accusations of biopiracy that had dogged similar projects.

This October, after countless hours collecting specimens, the bioprospectors were forced to retreat home by the region's turbulent politics. As those involved lick their wounds, they and others are lamenting a lost opportunity.

The project was headed by Brent Berlin, an ethnobiologist at the University of Georgia in Athens who has decades of experience in Mexico. Together with researchers from El Colegio de Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), a university in the Chiapas region of Mexico, his team started to explore the local rainforest.

The research was part of the US International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) programme, which aims to identify plants with ingredients that could treat important diseases in the United States. As is usual for ICBG projects, Berlin's team had sketched out an agreement for distributing profits from the research. Any return was to be split equally between a trust for local people, ECOSUR, the University of Georgia, and MolecularNature, a company in Maidenhead, England, which set up a plant biology laboratory at ECOSUR and helped train local researchers.

But pressure groups such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), based in Winnipeg, Canada, attacked the researchers on the grounds that local people were not properly informed of the project's aims. Initially, the researchers attempted to explain their aims by conducting interviews with local people, a strategy that had limited success. The local language — Maya — does not contain words for 'genes' or 'patents', and the researchers found it difficult to identify community leaders.

Dramatic moments

Theatre, which plays an important role in the local Maya culture, seemed to offer a solution. Around two years ago, Berlin's team, together with help from ECOSUR, moved between jungle hamlets, staging around 50 plays. Local people were recruited by ECOSUR researchers to act in the plays, which showed how plants were being collected and tested, and how villages could assist in the process and conserve the plants by starting their own botanical gardens. The actors also donned white coats to show how the researchers hoped to use the plants.

According to Robert Nash, research director at MolecularNature, who witnessed some of the performances, the plays appeared to work well in communicating their message to local people. Officials at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which helps fund ICBG projects, agree, saying the plays prompted most of the local communities to permit the bioprospecting.

RAFI, which this year changed its name to Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, together with local action groups, claimed that the plays were being used as a smokescreen to obscure the researchers' real objective — commercial exploitation.

Matters were further complicated when the new Mexican government, which was elected in July 2000, said that Mexico's bioprospecting legislation needed reviewing. This review, which is still ongoing, undermined the legal status of Berlin's research and, together with RAFI's campaign, forced the NIH to ask Berlin to suspend collecting late last year.

Berlin responded by proposing to use the grant to develop standards for gaining informed consent from the Maya. NIH officials agreed, but criticism in Mexico continued to grow.

RAFI's attacks struck home with ECOSUR researchers, who became less willing to be associated with the research. They finally withdraw their support in October, effectively killing the project.

Berlin refuses to comment on recent events, but the project's end has saddened others involved. “It's a shame it had to go down,” says Joshua Rosenthal, who directs the ICBG programme at the NIH's Fogarty International Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “This was an opportunity to test a model for ethical collaborations with indigenous people.”

Regulated bioprospecting is seen by many as vital if the area's biodiversity is to be exploited in a sustainable manner. But companies such as Diversa, a San Diego firm that had invested in other Mexican projects and would have shared profits with its Mexican collaborators, have already turned their attention to other countries. And undocumented collecting by rogue companies, which scientists familiar with the area say has been going on for years, looks set to continue.

“You won't see any legal bioprospecting in Mexico for years,” says Ignacio Chapela, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is a forgone opportunity for the Maya.”