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  • Farmer Isidro Rolon tastes stevia leaves at a plantation in Lima.

    Farmer Isidro Rolon tastes stevia leaves at a plantation in Lima. | Photo: Reuters

Published 22 February 2017

The Indigenous Guarani of Paraguay and Brazil demand they be fairly compensated for a synthetic product that undermines their traditional knowledge.

Coca-Cola will soon receive a petition signed by a quarter of a million people demanding that it stop exploiting the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous Guarani people to steal profits and threaten an important source of their income.

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The beverage multinational is among many companies that have marketed the synthetically-produced steviol glycosides as stevia, a leaf that has been used as a natural sweetener by Guaranis for centuries — a malpractice that amounts to “biopiracy,” according to the petition.

The Pai Tavytera and Kaiowa people of the Guarani tribe, from Paraguay and Brazil, and “who it (stevia) truly belongs to, (have not) been consulted,” read a declaration drafted by representatives from both communities.

They demand “the restitution of our rights for the use of our knowledge related to Stevia rebaudiana through benefit-sharing,” and vow to keep multinationals accountable through “a permanent assembly to monitor the claim for a fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of stevia and its derivatives.”

The petition to support their efforts, set up by corporate watchdogs SumofUs, France Libertes, Pro Stevia Schweiz and Public Eye with over 216,000 signatures as of Wednesday, came out of reports from six universities and organizations that track how “a few multinational commodities, food and beverage, and biotechnology corporations are using the appropriated knowledge and genetic resources to generate significant levels of profit.”

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While patenting the fake stevia, the companies brand it as a “natural” and “traditional” product that will change the nature of beverage sweetening. Meanwhile, Guarani stevia producers struggle to find a market for the leaves at a fair price, and the countries of origin lose a potentially important export.

“In this case, the entire value-added revenue will flow into the pocket of a few corporations primarily based in the North,” writes a 2015 report, adding that consumers also lose for not knowing that the sweetener is actually artificial.

“Benefit sharing does not have to be monetary, but it has to meet the needs, for instance the need for land, expressed by the Guarani.”

An update to the report a year later noted that several of the companies responded positively to the original study, claiming they “were supportive of the idea of benefit sharing with the Guarani and the countries of origin.”

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The principle profiteers, though, either declined to respond or claimed they were complying with consumer law, even though they were not. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola remain the biggest culprits, wrote the report.

Another success was convincing OECD, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals to adopt similar language and recognize stevia as an example of mismanagement of traditional knowledge. Brazil also passed a law last year to protect ancestral knowledge and biodiversity — which remains one of the main goals of the Guarani people in protecting their production of stevia.

Their declaration ends with a call to people “to be aware that the Earth is our mother, who is in danger because of the continually growing consumption and greed for profits that poison our lands, our seeds, our waters and our communities, destroying our forests and leaving us, and all of humanity, without the biodiversity required for life to carry on.”

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