After Centuries of Exploitation, Will Indigenous Communities in Biodiversity Hotspots Finally Get Their Due? | Civil Eats

After Centuries of Exploitation, Will Indigenous Communities in Biodiversity Hotspots Finally Get Their Due?

At the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, some developed nations agreed to compensate and recognize the stewards of precious genetic plant resources.

Sailing in a wooden boat on the Amazon river in Peru. An indigenous girl sitting on the front of the boat whilst sailing down the river.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Deep Dish, our members-only newsletter. Become a member today and get the next issue in your inbox.

From the time when the Italian naturalist Moises Bertoni first identified the potential sweetening properties of the ka’a he’^e plant in the subtropical rainforest of Paraguay in 1901 to its early commercialization in Japan in the late 1970s to its massive global rollout three decades later, there has been nothing preventing anyone from obtaining, transporting, researching, and exploiting the commercial potential of what the world now knows as stevia.

Steeped in tea, processed into granules, or cooked down into a paste, the stevia plant’s sweetening potency is derived not from a lab, like sucralose or aspartame, but from a leaf. The plant’s feathery leaves contain 200 times the sweetness of sugar without the calories. As recently as a decade ago, when food and beverage giants such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Cargill, and other companies began using stevia in dozens of products in what is now a $500-million-a-year market, they had no legal obligation to ensure that members of the Guarani tribe, on whose territory that leaf was first found, would benefit.

The Guarani, Latin America’s largest Indigenous tribe, with territory ranging from eastern Brazil to the sub-tropical mountain ranges of Paraguay, have long held stevia to be a sacred plant. They smear it on boys’ bodies during their ceremonial passage into manhood, and brew it into yerba mate and other traditional drinks to soften their bitterness.

In 2017, supported by the Swiss NGO Public Eye, the Guarani organized protests against the commercialization of their sacred drink, denouncing “the multinationals that make profits based on their knowledge and their biodiversity,” and asked that Coca-Cola and other companies agree to their demands to share in the financial benefits. Their demands were ignored.

Thirty-four percent of the lands with the highest rates of biodiversity on Earth are on Indigenous territory, according to a recent study in Science.

Now, five years later, neither the Guarani’s demands, nor the demands of other Indigenous peoples whose plant traditions have been extracted, have been met.

Starting this year, however, the era of untrammeled access to the world’s remaining genetic resources—that’s the term the UN uses for the Earth’s plants, animals, and micro-organisms—may be coming to an end. In one of the most significant developments at December’s global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Montreal, 196 countries agreed to create a new Access and Benefit Sharing Fund to ensure that moving forward, those who develop commercial products derived from genetic resources will be compelled to ensure a fair and equitable sharing of “monetary and non-monetary benefits from the utilization of genetic resources.”

In other words, the governments of the world agreed to create a system whereby local farming and Indigenous communities would receive “benefits” from the genetic resources that they have stewarded and conserved for millennia, as well as the traditional knowledge that has often helped point westerners to their multiple characteristics.

The U.S. is not a signatory to the treaty behind December’s convention—it was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, but never ratified by the Senate—but the U.S. did send an observer delegation to the Montreal conference, led by veteran State Department diplomat Monica Medina, who told a small gathering of journalists that she “wished” the U.S. was a member.

When it comes to food, these resources are becoming increasingly important as plants like stevia offer new flavors and textures, and, more broadly, scientists and farmers seek out more resilient seed varieties capable of withstanding extreme weather in the changing climate.

Stevia plants. (Photo CC-licensed by Robert Lynch)

Stevia plants. (Photo CC-licensed by Robert Lynch)

Global Impact of Equatorial Biodiversity

Ninety percent of the biodiversity on the planet is located on a band of land around the equator. And that geography of biodiversity aligns with the points of origin for many of the crops that are most popular in the Global North, the nations where the majority of the world’s financial resources are located. Thirty-four percent of the lands with the highest rates of biodiversity on Earth are on Indigenous territory, according to a recent study in Science.

The search for climateresilient seeds and plants leads to these centers of origin, where the wild relatives of our domesticated food crops have evolved over thousands of years to adapt to varying conditions. All food crops have wild relatives, botanic cousins that contain important survival skills lost through the process of domestication.

For example, the wild relatives of much of the wheat planted across the American Midwest is indigenous to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and other areas of the Mideast, where they’ve evolved over thousands of years to adapt to high temperatures. Agronomists have increasingly been turning to these varieties, which are essentially wild grass cousins of wheat, for their ability to withstand the hessian fruit fly, a pest that has been following the heat into the Midwest and attacking wheat fields.

Meanwhile, the small, fist-sized, wild relatives of apples from Central Asia contain genes that are more resistant to the wild swings in weather—most notably the increasingly mild winters and periodic droughts in apple-growing regions across the U.S. The origin center of corn in southern Mexico has long been key to the characteristics of resistance to fungi and pests in the U.S. corn belt, and is now understood to possess uniquely deep root structures enabling it to survive both flooding and drought.

The potato, a staple food for hundreds of millions of people, originates in the distant high altitudes of the Andes mountains, home to the Quechua Indians in Peru. Dozens of different colors and shapes are common throughout the Andes, each containing genes conveying what a recent study in the scientific journal Food and Energy Security summarized as “tolerance to salinity, drought, and temperature extremes.”

And there are other crops—including cabbage, turnips, and bok choy—that have plant scientists reaching as far as Pakistan and Tajikistan to find the wild relatives that can help the commercial varieties withstand extreme weather.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

These are the plants at the very beginning of a crop’s long journey from the field to our tables. “The history of agricultural domestication is a history of evolutionary winners and losers,” says Colin Khoury, senior director of science and conservation at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Khoury has been tracking the loss of such varieties and is part of an effort to preserve them under the umbrella of Botanic Gardens Conservation International. “Some of those ‘losers’ may not be tasty or even edible, but some of them are the key to resilience,” he added.

One of the U.N.’s motives is to slow the rate of extinction of these wild relative species and thousands of other species in what the U.N. and others have called a biodiversity crisis on par with the climate crisis.

Colonialism, Biopiracy, and Biodiversity

In many ways, the history of colonialism can be told from the history of plant extractions that became food or flavors for rich countries in the Global North—from vanilla (Madagascar) to nutmeg (Indonesia), potatoes (Peru), corn (Mexico), and chili peppers (Jamaica), the list goes on. For centuries, this process played out in colonial patterns of extraction. No one bothered asking for permission to explore, “discover,” dig, or leave with satchels of plant samples.

When UN negotiators met in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, at the ninth conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, they faced demands from developing countries to end what they termed rampant “biopiracy.” The Nagoya Protocol was the first official acknowledgment of the one-way trade in genetic resources; in response developed countries promised to find a way to provide financial compensation and/or other benefits to Indigenous people and local farming communities for the commercial exploitation of genetic resources, and even set up an Access and Benefits Sharing Fund to collect the money.

But it was not mandatory. Few companies paid in, and 12 years later it had collected and dispersed just $8 million, a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.N. says is key to ensuring conservation and proper recognition of the origin.

Negotiators, including from the Democratic Republic of Congo (center), during the COP 15 talks in Montreal. (Photo CC-licensed by the United Nations)

Negotiators, including from the Democratic Republic of Congo (center), during the COP 15 talks in Montreal. (Photo CC-licensed by the United Nations)

Coming into Montreal, a coalition of high-biodiversity countries—led by Indonesia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Brazil—demanded that the UN add muscle, and money, to ensure that they would benefit from the treasure of abundant plant life growing within their national or tribal lands.

The rising interest by food and pharmaceutical companies in such resources has coincided with a marked increase in organizing by Indigenous communities globally, said Preston Hardison, chief negotiator at the convention for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity—a global coalition of Indigenous NGOs, community leaders, and scholars. Hardison, a conservation biologist who worked for 20 years as a policy analyst for the Tulalip Tribes in northern Washington before his current position, has been to many CBD negotiating sessions over the past several decades.

“There have been major changes in the role of Indigenous communities at these and other UN negotiations,” he said. “In the ‘90s, on climate talks they’d be given a minute or two of intervention. But that has changed.”

The most notable change, he said, is the recognition, embedded in the new agreement, that Indigenous communities are often far more effective at preserving biodiversity, using traditional stewardship on lands they’ve lived in for centuries, than more top-down laws and policing have been.

The negotiations were, at times, fraught: The question of how to value genetic resources brings in a range of actors: governments, scientists, NGOs, and businesses. Scientists wanted to ensure that they could gain access to genetic resources even if they were not planning on developing them for commercial application. Business interests lobbied to keep payments as low as possible, but in general supported the initiative.

“Business would like clear rules,” said Daphne Yong D’Herve, director for knowledge solutions at the International Chamber of Commerce. “They don’t want to be accused of biopiracy.”

The African Union (A.U.) suggested that a surcharge of 1 percent of the retail value of any product made from genetic resources be charged at the point of sale. Pierre du Plessis, Namibia’s representative to the talks and a longtime negotiator for the A.U. on genetic resources, was adamant that this not be considered a “tax.” Instead, he said, “It would be a recompense for the centuries of colonial exploitation of African resources.”

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Over two weeks of negotiations, no one got exactly what they wanted. But a key step was taken: For the first time, the UN agreed that access and benefit sharing was a fundamental goal essential to the “conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”—the third goal among four that are the key ingredients of what’s now known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Working groups were created to determine how exactly the fund will work and, critically, what mechanisms will need to be put in place to make it enforceable. And it will all be presented and voted on at the next CBD convention in Turkey in 2024.

It’s not clear how much the companies will be expected to pay, how the money will be distributed, how the fund will manage plants that can be found in more than one place, or even what defines “commercial exploitation.”

Now the hard part begins: Communities that may view so-called “genetic resources” as vital and familiar parts of living systems must engage with international food companies that reduce living organisms to a set of commercially viable traits—sweet, salty, heat-resistant, or drought tolerant.

The two worlds are vastly different. “The Guarani don’t make the separations that we do: ‘This is land, this is animal, this is plant.’ They’re all related to them,” says Miguel Lovera, a scientific adviser to the tribe, who advocates for Indigenous rights in Paraguay from his post at the Catholic University in the nation’s capital of Asuncion. Indeed, even the very notion of them being “wild” relatives is a very Western concept, since the Guarani and many other tribes have long relied on plants that grow uncultivated in their territory.

Also at issue is the question of how this sea change will impact scientists, who are interested in accessing as wide an array of genes as possible in order to digitally sequence the genetic characteristics of food and tastes, like stevia.

The new Access and Benefit Sharing Fund could potentially channel hundreds of millions of dollars toward much-needed conservation in developing countries, where land is often cleared to produce ingredients for the same large food companies. Yet it’s not clear how much the companies will be expected to pay, how the money will be distributed, how the fund will manage plants that can be found in more than one place, or even what defines “commercial exploitation.”

At a closing press briefing on December 20, Inger Andersen, the Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Program, declared a mixture of hope and caution to a small group of journalists. “Let us pause but one second to embrace the history we have made in Montreal,” he said. “And now let us get down to the business of delivering . . . for people and the planet.”

This is the first article in a two-part series; the second article will be published later this month.

Mark Schapiro is an award-winning investigative journalist specializing in the environment. His most recent book, SEEDS OF RESISTANCE: The Fight for Food Diversity on our Climate-Ravaged Planet, a journey in search of the seeds capable of resilience to climate change and the struggle with agri-chemical companies to control them, has recently been updated and published in paperback. He is a Lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, teaching climate and environmental journalism. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from



A farmworker feeds cows in a barn.

Senator Cory Booker Says FDA Proposal Could Worsen Antibiotic Resistance

A Field Report exclusive: The New Jersey senator sends a letter to the agency, asking it to enforce limits on farm use of antibiotics. Plus: FDA bans brominated vegetable oil and OSHA introduces heat protections.


Can Seaweed Save American Shellfish?

Donna Collins-Smith hauls out kelp lines for the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers on Shinnecock Bay. (Photo credit: Rebecca Phoenix)

The Promise and Possible Pitfalls of American Kelp Farming

an illustration by nhatt nichols showing a hand pulling a kelp line out of the sea

A US Court Found Chiquita Guilty of Murder in Colombia. What Does the Ruling Mean for Other U.S. Food Corporations Abroad?

Workers unload green bananas for washing at the Santa Cruz banana plantation in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico. The fruit from the plantation in the Mexican state of Chiapas is harvested year round and shipped to clients in Mexico and the United States, incluiding Chiquita, the leading American banana distributor. (Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

Look What Nicola Twilley Found in the Fridge

Nicola Twilley and the cover her new book, Frostbite. (Author photo credit: Rebecca Fishman)