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Bioprospecting in Madagascar

Fulbright grant supports recent graduate's trip to Africa to continue research she began with her senior thesis

By Jon Reidel Article published November 10, 2004

Laura Tilghman, who graduated earlier this year, received a Fulbright grant to continue her research on bioprospecting in Madagascar.

When Laura Tilghman graduated in May she had some unfinished business. Her junior semester of study abroad had introduced her to many of the challenges facing developing countries and sparked an interest that couldn’t be satisfied with one visit.

The next year, Tilghman, who received a degree in environmental studies and environmental science, started work on a thesis on bioprospecting, a practice that often involves the extraction of indigenous plants for research and subsequent use by pharmaceutical, agriculture and nutrition companies, using Madagascar as her case study. Despite two trips to the immense island off the southeast coast of Africa to interview policy makers and local organizations, Tilghman wanted to do more research.

“Most of the scholarly work on bioprospecting has focused on India and Latin America, but very little has been done with African nations,” Tilghman says. “In Madagascar there aren’t as many activists or indigenous protests. They aren’t as aware of how much money pharmaceutical companies are making off their indigenous plants.”

Lacking funding for another trip to advance her research, Tilghman applied for, and won, a student Fulbright grant as a senior through the U.S. Department of State. The $23,000 grant — the only one given to a UVM student last year — gives recent graduates the opportunity to conduct career-launching research abroad.

Balancing indigenous needs, research
Tilghman left for Madagascar on Nov. 7 to continue her examination of bioprospecting, which is currently one of the most hotly debated topics in conservation and indigenous rights. It’s a particularly intense issue on the island, which, because of its isolation, is a place where 80 to 90 percent of its plants are unique, a potential trove for researchers.

“They are prospecting for gold in the form of new drugs. Some huge blockbuster drugs have come out of some countries with no compensation for the country of origin,” Tilghman says. “Definitely in the past pharmaceutical companies have taken advantage of the countries that had no sense of the value of their indigenous plants. But a lot of pharmaceutical companies are trying to do good things like giving money to the governments.”

Tilghman stresses that her primary goal isn’t to expose various companies for using plants they do not own. Instead, she intends to write reports to give to communities and researchers to promote better relationships that result in environmentally responsible continued research that is beneficial to all parties involved.

In her grant proposal, Tilghman says that people living in such ecosystems often have an “intimate knowledge of the uses of local natural resources and can aid in research advances.” With this in mind, her project is designed to study the debates and dilemmas encountered when seeking useful approaches to addressing local needs and research innovation.

With Madagascar being one of the poorest countries in the world, Tilghman says there is a tremendous need to find ways to bring economic stability to its people. She uses an example of one of the most well known cases of bioprospecting to show that “since biological compounds do not respect national borders, their commercialization does not necessarily bring ensuing benefits back to where they came from.”

In her proposal, Tilghman writes about two successful anti-cancer drugs produced by Eli Lilly, a US-based pharmaceutical company, that came from chemicals found in the rosy periwinkle, a plant native to Madagascar. “Since Madagascar had no technical capacity for in-country research and development, nor any laws to ensure compensation or benefit-sharing for products made from its resources, it receives none of the $100 million Eli Lilly makes annually from the sale of these drugs.”

The country’s government recently passed legislation to regulate bioprospecting contracts at the national level and to ensure that all research meets certain standards and protects the right of the local people. What’s lacking, according to Tilghman, is information on how it could be implemented at the local level.

“In order to understand how to do so in a way that involves local people properly, we must first understand local conceptions of ownership and access to knowledge, as well as local development and conservation needs,” writes Tilghman, who says some indigenous people don’t want traditional plants messed with in any way.

Her Fulbright trip starts in the capital of Antananarivo where she’ll look at national and institutional policy. The last two phases of the project focus on the question of how to address local needs and values in the bioprospecting process. She’ll travel to the Masoala peninsula — an isolated area that has recently received research scrutiny — to look at local knowledge of medicinal plants. She’ll then visit the protected area of Zahamena to look at the impact of bioprospecting on local people and their knowledge systems. She’ll return to Antananarivo to share her findings with a number of Malagasy research organizations.

“I’m hoping to write some reports to give to local communities and researchers to help them better deal with this issue,” Tilghman says. “I’d like to publish an article on it because right now there’s not much out there. Hopefully the research will help the country and the companies work together.”