Transnationals with a Conscience

Some drug companies are trying to do the right thing


| March-April 1996



This is part of a series of essays on bioprospecting and biopiracy. The other essays are: “Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?”; “High-Tech Piracy”; “Mapping the Territory”; “Pharmaceutical Giant Shares the Wealth”; and “Biodiversity Resources”. 

Not all pharmaceutical companies are created equal, and some are actively trying to grapple with the thorny issue of how to compensate developing countries and indigenous groups equitably for their folk wisdom and rich biodiversity. In this article, two scientists from Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a San Francisco-based biotechnology corporation, present their corporate philosophy and socially responsible business objectives. It looks great on paper. Only time will tell whether Shaman actually lives up to its honorable goal.

Today, five centuries after the Old World and the New World first collided, it is no longer a question whether indigenous peoples should benefit from products that have been developed on the basis of their knowledge. Individual ethnobiologists and organizations such as the Society of Economic Botany, the International Society of Ethnobiology, and the American Anthropological Association have emphatically stated the importance of ethical reciprocal conduct by all parties who perform research of any type with local and indigenous peoples.

Other questions remain. Among the most challenging are these two: How do indigenous and local peoples themselves define benefits, and through what mechanisms can individuals and organizations working with these groups provide such benefits? Shaman Pharmaceuticals Inc., a San Francisco-based natural products company, is seeking answers to these complex questions.

Shaman works to discover and develop new classes of pharmaceuticals by isolating active compounds from tropical plants that have a history of medicinal use. Eschewing the mass screening approach typical of major pharmaceutical companies, Shaman is pioneering drug discovery techniques by integrating the sciences of ethnobotany (the study of how native peoples use plants), medicine, and plant natural product chemistry. Given our company’s dependence on and respect for the traditional knowledge of native peoples, it is not surprising that we wrestled for some time with the thorny issues surrounding exchange of benefits.

From its beginnings in 1989, Shaman has been committed to the concept of reciprocal benefits: to developing new therapeutic agents by working with indigenous and local peoples of tropical forests and, in the process, contributing to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. Terms of this reciprocity are driven by the expressed needs of the people themselves. Inherent in our commitment is a direct acknowledgment, in both ethical and financial terms, of the intellectual property rights of the indigenous peoples with whom we work. In our view, their traditional knowledge is an irreplaceable cultural resource. We believe that our company has a dual obligation to provide compensation for that knowledge and to help our collaborators maintain it.

Shaman’s approach to questions surrounding reciprocal benefits involves three time frames—immediate, medium term, and long term. We developed this approach in part to address a potential conflict between our company’s recognized obligations to local communities and the nature of the pharmaceutical industry. Although the needs of indigenous peoples are often urgent, development of a therapeutic agent generally requires a long lead time, which can easily be five to ten years. Shaman considers it unacceptable to delay compensation for indigenous people until a product to which they have contributed is ready for market. We also believe that our collaborators are entitled to a percentage of the profits from sales after the product is on the market, and to some return even if the product never achieves commercial potential.