Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003


  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    RO333 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Biopiracy and the unauthorized collection of biomedical samples


The Karitiana, like the Suruí, became victims in the race to profit from the genetic diversity and wealth that swept through Amazonia from the end of the 1980s. Samples were collected from their bodies on two occasions, events that, even today, have significant implications for the Karitiana history and conception of their relations with the white world.

The news that ten samples of Karitiana (and Suruí) DNA and cell lines were being sold on the internet by Coriell Cell Repositories (CCR) exploded in 1996 after a denunciation made by Ricardo Ventura Santos and Carlos Coimbra Jr., who visited the institution’s stand at the parallel fair to the congress of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, which took place in April of the same year. Genetic material from 15 populations from various parts of the globe were – and still are – available for sale on Coriell’s website, the prices varying between US$ 85 (for cell cultures) and US$ 55 (for DNA samples). The material remains stocked at the company’s head office under the label of ‘Human Variation Collection’ o’ ‘Human Diversity Collection’, and comes from the samples collected as part of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which, in the wake of the Human Genome Project (HGP), proposed a large database on the variety of genetic structures representing the full diversity of the planet’s indigenous populations. The news quickly reached the headlines of numerous Brazilian newspapers and was followed by a wide-ranging debate involving Funai, the National Congress and different entities working in the defence of indigenous rights, as well as the Indians themselves. However, much of the information published in the press was inaccurate and even today some doubts remain concerning the trajectory of the blood samples from the Amazonian villages to their processing and commercialization on the internet.

All the evidence suggests that the five samples of Karitiana blood and another five samples of Suruí blood stocked and sold by the CCR were taken in 1987 by the geneticist Francis Black, one of the authors of an article from 1991 in which the collection of the blood samples from the two groups is credited to himself. This material had apparently been stocked in laboratories at the universities of Stanford and Yale in the United States, under the care of Dr. Kenneth Kidd, of Yale (Folha de São Paulo, 01/06/97).

Between the 3rd and 13th July 1996 there was a second collection of blood. On this occasion, a British television crew, accompanied by three Brazilians, requested permission from Funai to enter the Karitiana Indigenous Territory in order to produce a documentary on the ‘cultural importance’ of the mapinguari, a legendary monstrous creature present in the cosmology of many indigenous groups in Amazonia. On the 19th September of the same year, the Karitiana sent a letter to the Attorney General of the State of Rondônia denouncing that the team of Brazilians collected blood samples from all the Indians – both in the village and at the House of the Indian in Porto Velho – “to be examined for anaemia, worms and malaria.”

The fact that the unauthorized collection of blood by this team occurred during the same period as the denunciation of the sale of genetic samples on the internet led to a widespread confusion between the two cases. It was immediately hypothesized that the blood collected by the Brazilian doctors in 1996 had been sold to Coriell Cell Repositories. Soon after the denunciations exploded in the press, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Brazilian Embassy in the USA, as ked the US company to provide information on the commercialized material. Dr. Richard Mullivor, then director of the CCR, informed that the samples from the two Brazilian indigenous groups had been donated by the researcher Kenneth Kidd, then Professor of the Department of Genetics at Yale University, and that they had been collected in the field "several years ago by anthropologists" who had observed the rules of ‘informed consent’ on the part of the ‘donors’ (the terms are cited in this form in the report of the Commission on Biopiracy in Amazonia, in which the Chamber of Deputies presents the results of the investigations into cases of piracy of Amazonian biological and genetic resources). Mullivor also claimed that the samples were not sold by the CCR, since the institution was non-profit-making: the prices charged for the material on Coriell’s website merely related to the costs of packing and sending the items to researchers all over the world. In a press release dated 11th June 1997, the Brazilian physician who accompanied the British filmmakers defended himself against the accusations made in the newspapers, claiming that the blood had been collected as a precaution in response to the poor state of health of the Karitiana and the wish to assist the group through lab examinations of the collected material.

In the same letter, the physician informed that all the material collected by himself remained stored at a laboratory at the Federal University of Pará and had no connection with the samples sold by Coriell; the latter were collected, the physician stated, “in the 1970s [sic] by American researchers [sic], with the consent of Funai.” He added that the examinations promised to the Karitiana were not produced due to the precarious conditions for transporting and storing the samples, which had deteriorated rapidly, preventing their analysis.

Nonetheless, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a civil lawsuit against the two of the Brazilian who had accompanied the British crew, demanding compensation for the Karitiana community. The lawsuit also demands a complete ban on any sale of the material collected among the Indians by the researchers.

It remains to ask, though, how the Karitiana themselves experiences these two events and how they constructed a particular interpretation of them.

The case from the Karitiana perspective

One of the versions of the myth of Byjyty, grandchild of Botyj, the ‘great, chief’ God – collected in Portuguese from two informants in June 2003 – tells of a history of losses in the contact with the whites, though it places the Karitiana as the main agents of their own misfortune. In the ‘ancient time’ – the Karitiana form of, in Portuguese, establishing a rupture between the current time and the mythic time or ancient history – Byjyty lived among the Karitiana. One day he warned the Indians that he would die and a short time later return in the form of a large bird, which the Karitiana should not kill. He died and was buried inside the maloca. His spirit returned – as he had forewarned, in the form of a jabiru stork – and landed on top of the maloca. However the Indians forgot Byjyty’s warning and killed the bird. They were then punished for their 'sin:' Byjyty departed forever and was reborn among the whites. It had been Byjyty who had long ago removed the whites from inside the ‘large water,’ from the domain of Ora, ‘chief of the waters’ and his grandfather’s brother. Byjyty transmitted all his wisdom to the whites. Had they not ‘erred’ by killing the bird, Byjyty would have been born again among the Indians and today they would have all the much-desired goods possessed by the whites.

The Karitiana comment concerning this myth suggests the suffering experienced by the Karitiana over the decades of living with the whites. It also parallels a collection of narratives that describe the abundance of the ‘ancient time’ and the decline inaugurated by contact, especially in relation to the radical demographic collapse the people suffered with the emergence of unknown and much more aggressive diseases. The two events of collecting blood among the Karitiana must be seen from the perspective of these narratives.

The Karitiana ethnography has previously referred to the shallow time-depth of memory in this society. In fact, the Karitiana do not recall with any precision the 1987 event, which, for them, seems to fall into the temporal category of ‘some time ago,’ which apparently covers the period between the present and immediate past and the remote, mythic and historical past. Some fragmented information is given by a few people about the visit ‘many years ago’ of two “thin Americans with pinched (‘toad’) stomachs.” In this period the school village had yet to be completed, “it was small still.” The ‘Americans’ came in two airplanes and collected blood at the health post. This occurred in 1984 or 1985, according to some of the Karitiana. The references to their age at the time of the event – a common temporal landmark – also suggest the mid 1980s.

Many Karitiana recall the 1996 event in detail, in part because of the group’s active opposition at the time to what they considered harmful to their interests – a stance echoed by the concerns of Funai and the Public Prosecutor's Office and of other researchers and the wider public concerning biopiracy and the access of ill-intentioned researchers to indigenous areas. The Indians recount that the Brazilian medic and a team of ‘Americans’ came to the village and said that they would collect blood to undertake examinations, after which they would send medicines to the community every month. Over two days all the village’s residents, including children, appeared at the local health post where each one had two glass ampoules of ‘pure blood’ removed, sufficient to fill two large polystyrene boxes, which were later taken away. The physicians distributed sweets to the children and chocolates to the adults, which must have given the episode a festive air. The Karitiana recall the reluctance some people showed to give their blood, subsequently convinced by the seductive proposal to improve their access to health services. However, the promises made by the researchers were never fulfilled, according to the Karitiana, and – the biggest cause of revolt – after leaving the area, the medics never returned and the much-awaited medications never arrived in the village.

The Karitiana cosmology contains a series of elements that allow us to understand the problem imposed by removal of their blood and storage of the samples, above all in relation to the dangers associated with blood externalized from the body, especially where this blood – in some cases from now deceased persons – remains unburied. The blood’s polluting aspects are apparently emphasized in the failure to simply return the material: this would be the logical procedure in the eyes of the Karitiana, who do not understand the reasons for collecting human biological material and scientific and commercial potential involved in the enterprise. But at the same time, the impossibility of the blood being reused, placed back inside bodies, is obvious: the removed blood is ‘cold,’ dead blood, and moreover there is the fear that their blood may have been mixed with that of other people and even animals – “dogs, cattle and donkeys,” animals introduced by the whites and treated somewhat ambiguously by the Indians. For this reason, the blood in question is ‘dirty,’ in contrast to the ‘pure, clean’ blood circulating in living bodies.

This conceptions in mind, the Karitiana talk of compensation for the ‘stolen’ blood (their term): they want money in return. Having perceived that the blood, a sign in their cosmological code, was commercialized, the Karitiana conceive the return in merchandise as the most appropriate translation to render mutually intelligible the confrontation between their cosmology and a ‘capitalist cosmology.’

The unauthorized collection of their blood was, therefore, an affront to the Karitiana symbolic conceptions concerning the body and its proper functioning. However, more than this, it amounted to serious moral offence: the Karitiana speak of the tasoty, literally ‘great men,’ not only in terms of physical size but above all in terms of wisdom, thought and work: a ‘great man’ is one who does not ‘think along one path only,’ but ‘spreads out in all directions,’ a man who possesses wisdom and responsibility. In sum, the model of an appropriate and respected social persona: the man who ‘speaks well to people,’ welcomes them readily into his home, does not ‘tell lies or think and speak badly’ of others, and respects the rules of reciprocity, so important to the group.

Many whites fit into this category, since they are accredited with long years of study and a vast knowledge. For this reason, then, the Karitiana reflect with incredulity and resignation on the treachery to which they were victim, given that they would never expect such deviant conduct from a tasoty, especially doctors, where trust is fundamental and was perhaps fed by the relative efficiency of the health services offered to the Karitiana in the village and in Porto Velho. A breach of the ethics of exchange, founded on the swapping of blood collected in diverse contexts for remedies and medical care – an exchange that had been established for some time among the Karitiana. This breach left a strong feeling of resentment and the need to recover, in some form, what had been lost.