Learning from the Past: Reflecting on the Maya-ICBG Controversy in the Classroom

Daniela Shebitz, Angela Oviedo


In the 1990s, the Maya-ICBG (International Cooperative Biodiversity Group) was one of the major bioprospecting projects in Chiapas, Mexico and was designed to incorporate traditional knowledge into pharmaceutical research. The researchers had hopes of benefiting Indigenous communities economically and technologically while conserving plants and traditional knowledge. Unfortunately, the project experienced local and international opposition who accused the project of exploiting Indigenous people and privatizing their knowledge. We present a teaching module in the form of an interrupted case study in which participants learn about the ethnobotanical study that shifted from one of promise to one of controversy. The history of the development of the case study over the past decade is told from both a faculty and a student perspective. The purpose of this perspective article and of our case study in general is to bring the conversation of ethics to the forefront of ethnobiology. Although the Maya-ICBG project was brought to a close in 2001, the case study is still relevant in both a historical context and as a means to discuss ethics and Prior Informed Consent.


Case study; Maya-ICBG; Prior Informed Consent; Bioprospecting; Chiapas; Mexico

Full Text:



AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). 2000. University of Georgia to host 7th International Congress of Ethnobiology in October. Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2000-10/AAft-UoGt-0510100.php. Accessed on June 26, 2017.

Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Conservation. 2001. Proyecto de biopiratería en México cancelado definitivamente [web page]. Available at: http://www.etcgroup.org/es/content/proyecto-de-biopirater%C3%Ada-en-m%C3%A9xico-cancelado-definitivamente. Accessed on June 26, 2017.

Anderson, E., B. Berlin, Berlin, E. A., and J. R. Stepp. 2002. On Maya Medicine and the Biomedical Gaze. Current Anthropology 43:789–793.

Andrzejewski, A. 2010. Traditional Knowledge and Patent Protection: Conflicting Views on International Patent Standards. Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal/Potchefstroomse Elektroniese Regsblad (PER/PELJ) 13:94–125.

Bannister, K., M. Solomon, G. Dutfield, J. Velásquez Runk, and W. McClatchey. 2004. Addressing Ethical and Legal Issues in Ethnobiology: A Deliberative Dialogue on the ISE Draft Guidelines for Research. Panel presentation at the 9th International Congress of Ethnobiology University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom.

Berlin, B., and E. A. Berlin. 2004. Community Autonomy and the Maya-ICBG Project in Chiapas, Mexico: How a Bioprospecting Project that Should Have Succeeded Failed. Human Organization 63:472–486.

Berlin, B., E. A. Berlin, E. J. C. F. Ugalde, L. G. Barrios, D. Puett, R. Nash, and A. M. González-Espinoza. 1999. The Maya-ICBG: Drug Discovery, Medical Ethnobiology, and Alternative Forms of Economic Development in the Highland Maya Region of Chiapas, Mexico. Pharmaceutical Biology 37:127–144.

Bjorkan, M., M. Qvenild. 2010. The Biodiversity Discourse: Categorisation of Indigenous People in a Mexican Bio-prospecting Case. Human Ecology 38:193–204.

Convention on Biological Diversity. About the Nagoya Protocol [web page]. Available at: https://www.cbd.int/abs/about/default.shtml. Accessed on January 8, 2018.

Garcia, J. 2007. Fighting Biopiracy: The Legislative Protection of Traditional Knowledge. Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 18:5–28.

Hardison, P. 2000. ICBG-Maya: A Case Study in Prior Informed Consent. The Monthly Bulletin of the Canadian Indigenous Caucus on the Convention on Biological Diversity. Available at: http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2005/april/tradoc_122179.pdf. Accessed on January 8, 2018.

Herreid, C. F. 2005. The interrupted case method. Journal of College Science Teaching 35:4–5.

International Society of Ethnobiology. History of the Code of Ethics [web page]. Available at: http://www.ethnobiology.net/what-we-do/core-programs/ise-ethics-program/code-of-ethics/brief-history/. Accessed on January 8, 2018.

International Society of Ethnobiology. 2008. ISE Code of Ethics [web page]. Available at: http://www.ethnobiology.net/wp-content/uploads/ISE-COE_Eng_rev_24Nov08.pdf. Accessed on January 8, 2018.

Nath, J. L. 2005. The Roles of Case Studies in the Educational Field. International Journal of Case Method Research and Application XVII 3:396–400.

Nigh, R. 2002. Maya Medicine in the Biological Gaze: Bioprospecting Research as Herbal Fetishism. Current Anthropology 43:451–477.

Oviedo, A. C., P. R. Field, and D. J. Shebitz. 2018. Indigenous Knowledge and the Search for Medicine: Controversy in Chiapas. National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY. Available at: http://libweb.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/collection/detail.asp?id=960&case_id=960. Accessed on January 8, 2018.

RAFI (Rural Advancement Fund International). 2000. Stop Biopiracy in Mexico! [web page]. Available at: http://www.gmwatch.org/en/news/archive/2000/8836-rafi-stop-biopiracy-in-mexico-24102000. Accessed on January 8, 2018.

Rosenthal, J. 1997. Integrating Drug Discovery, Biodiversity Conservation, and Economic Development: Early Lessons from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups. In Biodiversity and Human Health, edited by F. Grifo and J. Rosenthal, pp. 281–201. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Rosenthal, J. 2006. Politics, Culture, and Governance in the Development of Prior Informed Consent in Indigenous Communities. Current Anthropology 47:119–142.

Soto, J. C. 2000. Pukuj: Biopirateria en Chiapas. San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14237/ebl.9.1.2018.1095

Copyright (c) 2018 Daniela Shebitz, Angela Oviedo

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.