Cover Image
close this bookLife Industry: Biodiversity, People and Profits (WWF, 1996)
close this folderPart 2 - The practice- bioprospecting or biopiracy?
close this folder4. Green gold
View the document(introduction...)
View the document4.1. Equity issues in bioprospecting
View the document4.2. The body shop model of bioprospecting
View the document4.3. Indigenous peoples, responses to bioprospecting
View the document4.4. The losers' perspective

4.2. The body shop model of bioprospecting



There are two races running concurrently on planet Earth. The first, towards growth and development, will result in exhausting the planet of its resources before the end of the next century. The other is to find a more responsible manner for living on the planet.

Practical solutions are what we are looking for. There is no way we can wake up tomorrow morning and find that all the harmful elements of the marketplace have changed, and that we have a new set of rules. Neither can we continue waking up to the same dawn, one that gives us another day of non-stop environmental degradation. However, we can work to make the system more responsible. We can do this by understanding the production chain, by making sure environmental needs and human rights are addressed along the way. By following more responsible means of production we may extend life on the planet by a thousand years, and maybe give ourselves enough time to find a better future.

The first step towards more responsible production is sourcing and obtaining raw materials in a non-violent way. For this reason, the Body Shop is trading directly with several indigenous peoples. Groups like these are the custodians of much of the planet's biodiversity. Their knowledge is extensive, which is hardly surprising as their survival depends on it. Myth, religion, and lessons of the elders pass on that crucial knowledge, ensuring that in the future the experience of the past will keep the group in harmony with its environment.

One way to help the conservation of the biodiverse environments that indigenous people live in or near, is through providing them with the means to continue acting as custodians. This is one of the central tenets of The Body Shop's Fair Trade programme.

The erosion of cultural, as well as biological, diversity threatens the future of humanity. Many cultures are more endangered than the environments in which they live, and if they disappear their valuable knowledge of biodiversity disappears also. Recognizing and enshrining indigenous peoples' knowledge is crucial for the planet's future security.

Indigenous people number some 300 million people around the world, according to the United Nations. However, the funds made available to this important constituency for the 1993 United Nations Year of Indigenous People was a paltry $500 000, reflecting governments' lack of interest in helping or recognizing their indigenous populations.

There is a Masai saying, 'Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.' Likewise the historians of industrialized countries have already labelled this century an economic miracle. We trumpet the discoveries we have made, the drugs we've patented out of the jungle, the profits that have been gained. Yet the indigenous peoples who have seen their resources disappear have a different tale to tell. These groups are among the poorest inhabitants of the planet. One way of addressing this situation is through more equitable sharing of the wealth deriving from the biodiverse environments in which they live.

The moral and immoral economies

In the modern market economy, the moral dimension has been removed from the process of exchange, because producers and consumers rarely meet face to face. Care, responsibility and obligation, which mark the exchange process in traditional societies, have been replaced by interest, costs and profitability. The production trail is long and twisted, so it is easy to ignore or overlook the wrongs committed on people or the environment along the way.

In the moral economy, person-to-person relations are key to the trading process. The value of the product incorporates the value of the producer and seller. In traditional societies, buying and selling are fundamentally based upon the values of mutuality, trust, complementarity, and codependence. Direct relationships with primary producers and the better understanding of the path a product takes to the consumer could trigger the re-birth of the moral economy, helping consumers to make more ethical choices. The Body Shop's trading protocols are based on the principle that indigenous and traditional communities have a right to continue their traditional way of life and determine their own future.

Trading with the Mebengokre (Kayapo) Indians

Since 1991 The Body Shop has been trading with two Mebengokre communities of A-ukre and Pukanuv, for Brazil nut oil used in a hair conditioner product. These villages are two of sixteen Mebengokre communities which occupy an area the size of Holland in the Xingu River basin in the Brazilian state of Para. The Mebengokre number about three and a half thousand people, are fierce in defence of their culture and, until recently, were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The extraction technique and hand-operated pressing machinery for Brazil nut oil production were developed with ICI Brazil. The Body Shop agreed to fund the start up of the business in A-ukre with an interest-free loan of about $80 000. During the gathering season nearly everyone in the community is involved in the business. The Brazil nuts are collected from the ground, dehusked and then ground into a paste before being pressed to extract the virgin oil.

The Pukanuv business was started a year later, and the two communities are now each producing 2000 kilos of oil per year. This may be the upper limit that the community can produce without disturbing traditional life practices and without disrupting natural propagation of the trees. The price for the oil ($35 per kilo in 1993) reflects the long and difficult process to extract the oil. It is considerably higher than the market price of $15 per kilo for Brazil nut oil. This agreement was formalized in a legal contract between the company and the two villages.

As an interim step, a Brazilian indigenist was appointed as a liaison officer between the company and the communities to help keep the accounts, appoint officers, deal with export controls and so on. He will soon act merely as an adviser. Both the A-ukre and Pukanuv communities have formed trading companies, which are the first to be wholly-owned and operated by Indians in Brazil. The directors are elected by the company members from the communities.

One of the main challenges encountered by The Body Shop has been in helping the communities learn numeracy skills, handle money and accounts, and invest the profits for the benefit of the communities. Their direct involvement in product development and production has played a key role in this learning process.

In an attempt to make the trading relationship more equitable, The Body Shop has been developing some new initiatives, such as a health programme and working out a mechanism to protect the intellectual property of the Mebengokre.

This trading relationship has given the Kayapo the opportunity to earn income by carrying out an activity which does not take them away from their lands and which simultaneously allows them to carry on their traditional activities of celebrations, hunting, fishing and tending their gardens. The success of these initiatives has caused a further ten Kayapo communities to ask The Body Shop to help them set up similar projects.

Intellectual property rights

In line with the Declaration of Belem, which was adopted at the first International Congress of Ethnobiology in Brazil in 1988, The Body Shop is pursuing a policy of 'just compensation' to be made to indigenous peoples for the research information they provide to trading partners or research institutions. This means involving indigenous peoples in the planning and decision-making, recognizing them as contributors to all phases of the trade link, and considering their intellectual property to be equally important to that of the company. Mebengokre leader, Chief Paiakan has played a key role in educating villagers about the concepts of intellectual property rights.

It is unfair to suggest that only nation states should enjoy the riches reaped from their territories' biodiversity. But compensating indigenous communities is a sensitive issue, and some advocate the involvement of local NGOs to disburse the rewards locally. This approach may work sometimes, but it is still patronizing to expect indigenous peoples to be dependent on intermediaries all the time. Trickle-down theory hardly ever works. And the expectation of some collectors that companies will sign third-party agreements with indigenous peoples, or that the collectors themselves will distribute some of the rewards to the primary producers, is slim at best.

The Body Shop is researching and developing a covenant which addresses intellectual property rights and other parts of its business relationship with the Mebengokre. This covenant embodies the spirit of the relationship between the company and the local people, and separate contracts are drawn up for each individual trading relationship using the covenant as a guide. The Nucleo Direitos Indigenas, the legal body which works for indigenous rights in Brazil, is overseeing the relationship between the parties.

The Xingu Health Project

Over the first two years of the trading relationship, The Body Shop initiated two health programmes for the A-ukre and Pukanuv communities, involving the training of Kayapo health officers and a dental programme. A wider and longer-term initiative, in partnership with the Federal Indian Agency in Brazil (FUNAI) and the Brazilian Health Ministry is providing primary health care to all of the Kayapo villages as well as other ethnic groups living in the region. This is a long-term project, and the initial work in two villages has now been expanded to include many other indigenous groups in the Xingu region.

Business and sustainability

Up to now, a false taxonomy has been used in dictating who can act on issues concerning biodiversity and indigenous peoples, and business has not been considered a force to lead change. But categorizing and ghetto-izing actors according to their titles as business, NGOs or government will not effect change. We want to help break the mould that has dictated the form of economic development, by going straight to indigenous people to create models of responsible development.

This call to action is echoed by Mebengokre chief Pykatire Kayapo who called for more economic alternatives for indigenous peoples in threatened environments at the UN Working Group on Indigenous People in 1994. We believe that a new approach to resource utilization is crucial to the protection of these biodiverse environments, and the survival of their custodians: indigenous and traditional peoples throughout the world.