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