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Bioprospecting is the process of discovery and commercialization of new products based on biological resources. Despite indigenous knowledge being intuitively helpful, bioprospecting has only recently begun to incorporate such knowledge in focusing screening efforts for bioactive compounds. Bioprospecting may involve biopiracy, the exploitative appropriation of indigenous forms of knowledge by commercial actors, and also includes the search for previously unknown compounds in organisms that have never been used in traditional medicine before.
Biopiracy describes a practice in which indigenous knowledge of nature, originating with indigenous peoples, is used by others for profit, without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people themselves. For example, when bioprospectors draw on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants which is later patented by medical companies without recognizing the fact that the knowledge is not new, or invented by the patenter, and depriving the indigenous community to the rights to commercial exploitation of the technology that they themselves had developed. Critics of this practice, such as Greenpeace, claim these practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting companies that engage in 'biopiracy'.
The Maya ICBG bioprospecting controversy took place in 1999-2000, when the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group led by ethnobiologist Brent Berlin was accused of being engaged in unethical forms of bioprospecting by several NGOs and indigenous organizations. The ICBG aimed to document the biodiversity of Chiapas, Mexico and the ethnobotanical knowledge of the indigenous Maya people - in order to ascertain whether there were possibilities of developing medical products based on any of the plants used by the indigenous groups.
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