Sunday, December 10, 2006

Who owns the DNA of indigenous peoples?

An article in today's New York Times explores issues surrounding a National Geographic Society project to collect DNA from indigenous groups around the world.  One of the project goals is to map prehistoric migration patterns.   Scientists have collected DNA samples from members of indigenous groups in many parts of the world, but a controversy has accompanied collection efforts from Alaskan natives.  Amy Harmon, DNA Gatherers Hit Snag: Tribes Don’t Trust Them, N.Y. Times, Dec. 10, 2006
I recommend the entire article. Here are a few excerpts:

At issue is whether scientists who need DNA from aboriginal populations to fashion a window on the past are underselling the risks to present-day donors. Geographic origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture.

They argue that genetic ancestry information could also jeopardize land rights and other benefits that are based on the notion that their people have lived in a place since the beginning of time. . . .

The first large effort to collect indigenous DNA since federal financing was withdrawn from a similar proposal amid indigenous opposition in the mid-1990s, the Genographic Project has drawn quiet applause from many geneticists for resurrecting scientific ambitions that have grown more pressing. As indigenous groups intermarry and disperse at an ever-accelerating pace, many scientists believe the chance to capture human history is fast disappearing. . .

In May, project officials held a stormy meeting in New York with the indigenous rights group Cultural Survival while protestors carried signs reading “National Geographic Sucks Indigenous Blood.” Shortly after, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommended suspending the project.

Jim Smith

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