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Fourth World Eye Blog

Samoa’s “Mamala Tree Agreement” Promotes Profit Not Healing

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Olympia, Washington, USA 5 October 2004 -- The Mamala Tree Agreement concluded between the University of California-Berkeley and the Samoan government is destined to falter and breakdown when it becomes clear that the keepers of Samoan knowledge are the proper authorities over the use of traditional medicines and their relationship to the mamala tree is essential to the healing power of its extracts. This agreement is similar to the failed agreement between the University of Georgia, United States government, Mexico and several Mayan Communities touted five years ago as a major accomplishment splitting plant medicine royalties four ways. That agreement failed when the traditional healers organized their opposition and demanded that the agreement be dissolved. The Mamala Tree Agreement should be withdrawn and a moratorium on such agreements should be established until mutually agreed international protocols are put in place.

One problem with the agreement is that the commodification (or the commercialization) of traditional medicines eventually puts the healing powers of plant and animal medicines economically out of reach of those who most need the benefits of such medicines. Traditional Medicine healers generally regard knowledge and powers of healing as gifts that cannot be sold or purchased. The Mamala Tree Agreement fails this test.

A second problem is that the agreement as reported by Robert Sanders in his 29 September article speaks only to corporate agreement between officials of a university, state government and tribal leaders. The role of traditional healers appears to have been completely missed. This is an agreement between the willing who seek to gain wealth and power not healing and health. This is not an agreement to share knowledge and benefit the stricken. This is not an agreement that ensures the important relationship between Samoan healers and the mamala tree.

The third problem is that once the mamala tree is destroyed and the prostratin compound found in it is synthesized the communities of Samoa will be forgotten, stripped of their own medicine and the patents secured will guarantee a wealthy university more wealth and increasingly wealthy individuals more wealth and power over the use and distribution of a badly needed treatment of HIV Aids. This is what happened when pharmaceutical companies discovered the anti-cancer value of the Yew tree found in American Indian territories several years ago.

One possible solution to all of this would be for researchers in universities, states governments, corporations and other monetarily moved entities to form a non-profit entity in cooperation with indigenous doctors and healers to explore the wider benefits of traditional medicines. The states, universities, governments, corporations and other such agencies should then provide the funds necessary for research and distribution of a free drug--making the drug available to traditional healers in what ever form appropriate and to those who are stricken by disease.

Healing is not, nor should it be considered a business. The United States government has offered to provide $1.5 billion a year to help mitigate the cost of HIV drugs in Africa each year for ten years in response to the realization that HIV-aids victims can't afford commercially developed drugs. There is simply no reason why this level of funding could not be provided to ensure the free distribution of needed HIV AIDS drugs produced from the mamala tree. An agreement with the healers themselves would ensure that no profit is made from the development and production of useful drugs. An agreement with the healers and the mutual formation of a non-profit agency would ensure that research could be done and free distribution could be achieved. The agreement would leave the native healers of Samoa in direct control over the extraction and use of mamala tree extracts. The University would not have control over genes, nor would the Government of Samoa.

It would seem that something like this type of proposal would more directly respond to the pandemic on the one hand and the need for local control over biodiversity on the other. The relationship between local healers and the mamala tree has been left out of the equation. It is this relationship that ensures the continuity of the tree and the healing powers. Breaking that relationship however unintentional is a disaster waiting to happen with arrangements like the Mamala Tree Agreement.

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