Leaders representing tribes from nine Amazon Basin countries and two traditional Shamans filed a request on March 30 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to revoke a patent issued to a U.S. citizen for an Amazonian rainforest plant. The plant is used for the sacred Ayahuasca ceremony by thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon.
The patent was issued in 1986 under a law designed to protect fruit growers who create a "new and distinct" variety. But according to experts, the patented version of the plant--Banisterioposis caapi--grows naturally throughout the Amazon and was never altered by the patent holder. Ayahuasca is an important cultural and religious symbol for many tribes of the Amazon. Shamans use it as the basis for religious ceremonies. Indigenous leaders compare patenting Ayahuasca to "patenting the Christian cross."
The request was brought by the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA)--which coordinates over 400 indigenous groups belonging to nine national federations of Amazon countries--along with the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment, and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
In Washington were Antonio Jacanamijoy, from the Inga communities of Putumayo, in southern Colombia, General Coordinator of COICA; his father, Antonio Jacanamijoy Rosero, who is an Inga shaman; and Querubin Queta Alvarado, a Cofan shaman, from Ecuador, among others. In a public statement, Antonio Jacanamijoy (of COICA) noted that Ayahuasca means "vine of the soul" in the Quechua language. He added: "The indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin represented by COICA believe that the patent holder, Loren Miller, committed an offense against indigenous peoples by patenting for his benefit the sacred plant that he claims to have "discovered" in the smallholding of an indigenous family. Knowledge of the sacred plant is based on centuries of research by our ancestors. It has long served us and all of humanity for curing and treating hundreds of bodily and spiritual illnesses. Our traditional medicine harmonizes the body and the soul, as the body is also the soul. Our sacred plant is much better than western medicines because it treats what essentially are illnesses of the spirit. We do not understand how Miller, a non-indigenous person, has attempted to expropriate our knowledge by patenting the plant that he obtained from us."
"The indigenous peoples represented by COICA believe that commercializing an ingredient of our religious and healing ceremonies is a profound affront to the more than 400 cultures that populate the Amazon basin. According to tradition, only shamans are authorized to prepare the ceremonial drink made from the sacred plant, and no member of the community can drink it without the guidance of a shaman. Ayahuasca gives shamans the power to heal our sick, meet with spirits, and divine the future." It is now up to the PTO to decide on the petition.
For more information, contact Amazon Coalition, 1367 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036, tel.: (202) 785-3334, fax: (202) 785-3335, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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