National Geographic Migration Study Rouses Indigenous Concern

Critics see risks, not gains, for DNA donors

| August 18, 2005

The National Geographic Society's Genographic Project has a grand goal paired with a simple plan: Over the next five years, researchers will collect over 100,000 DNA samples from indigenous people around the world and use the genetic data to map human migratory history. Answers to age-old questions of origin seem to be within the reach of a painless cheek swab.

But to individuals concerned with biocolonialism -- the appropriation of genetic resources that belong to indigenous people -- the IBM- and Waitt Family Foundation-sponsored project is a source of ethical concerns, Mariana Budjeryn reports in Weekly Indigenous News. Leading the complex critique is the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB).

IPCB Executive Director Debra Harry says the project is a form of biocolonialism and will return no benefits to indigenous communities that it couldn't provide without collecting DNA.

What the IPCB argues the project does provide are risks. Results could contradict indigenous peoples' narratives of origin, leading to psychological or political harm. Another fear is that genetic data could be used in unauthorized research; such a betrayal occurred in a different project, Budjeryn explains. Furthermore, the IPCB worries that the private funding could help the project evade public accountability.

Genographic Project planners say their intentions are just. Results will be released into the public domain, and scientific director Spencer Wells calls the work an 'anthropological study that simply uses genetic tools.'

Harry and the IPCB remain unconvinced, even after a recent meeting with the Genographic Project team to address the council's concerns. The IPCB hopes launching a public campaign will help indigenous communities make informed decisions about participating in the project, which launched in April.
-- Julie Hanus