National Geographic Migration Study Rouses Indigenous Concern

The National Geographic Society’s
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

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

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