For Immediate Release
Thursday, November 4, 1999
U.S. PATENT OFFICE ADMITS ERROR, CANCELS PATENT ON SACRED "AYAHUASCA" PLANT
Indigenous Leaders, Legal Experts Hail Decision to Cancel "Flawed Patent" on Sacred Plant from the Amazon, But Call for Reforms to Prevent Future Abuses
Washington, D.C. - Indigenous peoples from nine South American countries won a precedent-setting victory yesterday, as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) canceled the patent issued to a U.S. citizen for the "ayahuasca" vine.
The plant, Banisteriopsis caapi, is native to the Amazonian rainforest. Thousands of indigenous people of the region use it in sacred religious and healing ceremonies, as part of their traditional religions.
The PTO's decision came in response to a request for reexamination of the patent filed with the PTO in March by the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment, and lawyers at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
"Our Shamans and Elders were greatly troubled by this patent. Now they are celebrating. This is an historic day for indigenous peoples everywhere," says Antonio Jacanamijoy, General Coordinator of COICA. According to David Rothschild, director of the Amazon Coalition, "Given that ayahuasca is used in sacred indigenous ceremonies throughout the Amazon, this patent never should have been issued in the first place."
The PTO based its rejection of the patent on the fact that publications describing Banisteriopsis caapi were "known and available" prior to the filing of the patent application. According to patent law, no invention can be patented if described in printed publications more than one year prior to the date of the patent application. William Anderson, director of the University of Michigan Herbarium, agreed that the PTO needs to improve its procedures for researching applications.
CIEL lawyer David Downes noted that "while we are pleased that the PTO has cancelled this flawed patent, we are concerned that the PTO still has not dealt with the flaws in its policies that made it possible for someone to patent this plant in the first place." He explained that "the PTO needs to change its rules to prevent future patent claims based on the traditional knowledge and use of a plant by indigenous peoples." He also argued that "the PTO should face the issue head-on of whether it is ethical for patent applicants to claim private rights over a plant or knowledge that is sacred to a cultural or ethnic group."
In a separate proceeding at the PTO, the three groups have called for changes in PTO rules. They argue that the PTO should require that patent applicants identify all biological resources and traditional knowledge that they used in developing the claimed invention.
Applicants should also disclose the geographical origin, and provide evidence that the source country and indigenous community consented to its use.
Kris Genovese, CIEL (1-202) 785-8700
David Rothschild, Amazon Coalition (1-202) 785-3334
OPEN LETTER TO THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES
As you may already be aware, the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) - a body of the the U.S. government - has decided to break relations with our organization. In doing so, they have denied any type of colaboration with more than one and a half million indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin, while we are making an effort to maintain our cultures, as well as, trying to avoid the destruction of the largest rainforest on the planet.
The reasoning of the president of the IAF is based the resolution adopted by the Coordinating Body for Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), that, in its Fifth Congress realized in May of the past year, decided to declare a citizen of the United States, Loren Miller, an "enemy of indigenous people". At this time COICA prohibited his entrance into any indigenous territory. Mr. Miller has patented in the United States, a variety of Ayahuasca or Yage (Banisteriopsis caapi ), which is a plant of hallucinogenic properties that is considered sacred for the majority of the 400 indigenous groups in the nine countries which constitute COICA.
We know well the campaign to discredit our organization orchestrated by Miller. For him, it was not enough to patent our sacred plant taken from the garden of an indigenous family in Ecuador, and he is now proposing to install a laboratory to process the plant in the same country. COICA is an organization with positive earned prestige at the international level, not only for the defense of indigenous rights, but also for the proposals and work to amelliorate the life conditions of our peoples.
The drastic resolution adopted by IAF is for us one more confirmation that this organization is serving the economic interests of one one individual against the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples and the opinion of worldwide respected organizations such as the WWF, the IUCN and the Amazon Coalition. These are some of the hundreds of organizations, American and international personalities that have written to the IAF to express their solidarity with COICA.
The pressure exercised by the IAF to retract our resolution adopted unanimously by ninety delegates representing the 400 indigenous groups represented in our Congress, it is inadmissable. As we have said, the respect of our beliefs and dignity as peoples are worth more than any amount of help that can be given or taken away.
COICA , once again ratifies all the points of the resolution adopted in the Fifth Congress about the patenting of ayahuasca, and insists in stressing that under no circumstances and despite any pressure of national and international organizations, COICA will not renounce its legitimate right to defend and preserve the knowledge, practices, innovations and natural resources of the peoples whom we represent. This right has been explicitly recognized in the Treaty of Biological Diversity that was ratified by more than 170 countries.
In addition to this, COICA declares that in the defense of its rights, it will use all legal means available. The capricious interpretation of COICA¥s resolution that Mr. Miller and other interested sectors have made, stating that our organization threatens "the life and integrity of a United States citizen" lacks any foundation and is only a strategy to divert the attention of the fundamental problem, which is the immoral and illegal patenting of our sacred plant. This is an offense which we cannot tolerate.
We believe that you the Congressmen/women, should know the fundamental reason which allows your fellow citizens to patent our plants and appropriate our knowledge. There is a lack of ratification by the U.S. Congress of the Treaty of Biological Diversity, and a lack of approval for accurate laws that impede this known worldwide practice of "biopiracy".
For these reasons, COICA will immediately initiate the legal process in the United States to achieve the absolute nullity of the patent obtained by Mr. Miller. In this process we are confident that there will be wide international solidarity for COICA¥s position, especially with the active support of conservation, humanitarian and politcal organizations of the United States. The personalities, politicians and public opinion of the U.S., have on several occasions demonstrated their solidarity with the cause of Amazonian indigenous peoples due to our contribution to the environmental stability of the planet.
General Coordinator of COICA