The Limitations of Good Intent: Problems of Representation and Informed Consent in the Maya ICBG Project in Chiapas, Mexico

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Abstract

The Maya International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (Maya ICBG) research project began in 1998 in the central highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, in a difficult and contentious legal, social and political climate. The researchers' good intentions were that the indigenous Maya people would both contribute to the project and benefit from it. However, gaps in the way local communities were included became a focus for international resistance to the project, which was abandoned in 2001.

No single actor should bear the total responsibility for what happened to the Maya ICBG, but none is devoid of it. Through a comparison with the San- Hoodia case we discuss how parties on all sides implicitly understood ‘collaboration’ and ‘benefit sharing’, which can easily become controversial due to conflicting assumptions about how and to what extent different groups of people should benefit from the potential royalties, and who should make these decisions.

Like the San peoples, the Maya stood to receive a very small proportion of any profit that might come from the development of commercial products. These benefits, whether realized or not, are never ethically neutral, so the transparent, full and free prior informed consent of communities to accept the risk of going along this path is absolutely essential. Both cases played out in a domestic legal and policy vacuum. Questions about the legitimacy of processes and decisions emerge as fundamental.

The failure of the Maya ICBG was due largely to the lack of an appropriate prior informed consent process built on trust and adequate representation. The question of Maya identity and self-representation through forms that are ‘credible’ to outside bioprospectors is an ongoing issue. The pan-Mayan identity currently under construction in Chiapas faces similar challenges to those of the San people.