Robbed of their own culture

by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc

Endlich! (Ausgabe I/2020)

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Illustration: Julia Praschma


Over the past ten years, there has been a steady rise in cases of cultural appropriation and the problems which ensue. The feminist theorist bell hooks used the term cultural appropriation in the late 1980s to describe the simultaneous fetishisation and cannibalisation of the black body in advertising, music and film. This term unravelled an invisible construction within the social and institutional fabric of the United States and the entire globalized Western world. By relating this unconscious mechanism of desire in mass culture to racist white supremacy, bell hooks made visible a kind of “imperialist nostalgia” that locates the primitive spirit” in the “non-white body of the other”.

The growing space for discussion about cultural appropriation has been fuelled by “Black Lives Matter” movement in 2013 or the debate underway since 2017, inspired by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, about restitution of African cultural objects contained in Western museums.

In an open letter in 2017, Hanna Black spoke out against exhibiting a work by Dana Schutz at the New York Whitney Biennial art exhibition. The painting by the American artist of European descent is inspired by a photograph showing the disfigured body of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was brutally lynched by two white men in 1955 in Money, Mississippi. In a contemporary nod to bell hooks' analyses, Hanna Black highlighted that “ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began.” Hanna Black's letter is part of a global resistance movement against an ideological construction, whose racist, sexist and ableist foundation has accompanied the emergence of modernity.

With reference to the slavery that turns millions of men, women and children into “movable goods”, Hanna Black takes us to the heart of what Annibal Quijano calls the “coloniality of power”. For the Peruvian sociologist, race is “the first modern category, because it makes it possible to classify the population on the basis of phenotypic distinguishing features, especially skin colour, so that the differentiation and the subordinate social position of certain groups appears as the effect of a natural process”. The colonial structure of power has thus produced social differences, which in a second step have been codified as racial, ethnic and national differences. These constructions have been transformed into “supposedly objective, scientific categories without taking their historical dimensions into account. They became natural phenomena, seemingly completely detached from the history of power”. Annibal Quijano's theory reveals how racism and capitalism are firmly intertwined.

He also shows the birth of a Eurocentric approach that denies the legitimacy of all forms of knowledge, except those produced by modern Western science. Cultural appropriation can be viewed as a step in the course of a wider process of domination through the annexation and classification of living beings. This cuts to the heart of the project of modernity, which has also left its mark on the current discussions on biopiracy.

Take, for example, a particular biopiracy case about the plant Quassia amara which is currently in the hands of the European Patent Office (EPO) between the indigenous community of French Guiana (a French overseas department in South America) and the Institut de Récherche pour le Développement (IRD), the French research institute for development.

Scientists have relied on a policy of domination over colonised people as well as annexed territories

If one trusts the Carl von Linné system, the discovery of the quassia amara species dates to the 18th century and is attributed to the botanist Kwasimukamba, also called Granman Quassi. In his childhood he was taken as a slave and was uprooted from Ghana to the Dutch colony Surinam. As an adult he was given back his freedom - on the one hand because he mediated between the Saramaka people and the Dutch army during the Maroon Wars of the 18th century and, on the other, because of his knowledge of natural remedies. It is highly likely he made a bitter tea brew from the extract of quassia amara, the bright green plant with red flowers which grows in the Amazon basin. The current scandal about the plant, which is called “couachi” by the indigenous communities of Guiana, began in 2002, when the World Health Organization commissioned an epidemiological study on malaria to find out how the indigenous population treats it. Initially, this meant evaluating traditional remedies for the protection and treatment of malaria. The plants used for this purpose were then documented. The organization in charge of this data collection for French Guiana is the IRD, an institution founded in 1935. Back then, its remit included organizing “colonial sciences”.

Since the beginning of the colonial process, English, French or German scientists have relied on a policy of domination over colonised people as well as annexed territories in Africa, South America or Asia, in order to develop extensive prophylactic campaigns against yellow fever, malaria and sleeping sickness under the guise of philanthropy. These campaigns enabled scientists to develop new tests and find new results, while expanding their laboratories in colonised areas. As a result, tropical medicine was created with the support of the colonial administration and formed an essential cog in the bigger machine.

In 2002, the IRD detailed the research: 117 persons from different population groups, Creoles, Galibis, Palikur, Hmong and others, were randomly selected and interviewed. For ethical reasons, such a survey should never have been carried out without informing each and every individual and the respective authority (their chief or religious leader) on site: The researchers had to concede that they had not asked for permission to use the results. The Couachi plant was identified as one of the plants used by the interviewees as a remedy against malaria.

From 2000 to 2009, the researchers analysed the plant's effect and in 2009 the IRD applied for a first patent protecting the use of the active ingredient Simalikalactone E for the treatment of malaria. The patent was recognized in 2015. A second patent protecting the use of Simalikalactone E molecule as an active ingredient against cancer was confirmed in 2017.

The term “biopiracy” as it is used at present was first used by Pat Roy Mooney in 1993, following the 1992 World Summit in Rio de Janeiro. There, at a convention on biological biodiversity, a total of 182 states set three treaty objectives: the conservation of biological diversity, its sustainable use and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from its genetic resources. The two patents filed by the IRD went against all the intentions of this treaty by earmarking researchers as the discoverers of the molecule, thus giving the IRD a monopoly on its use for at least twenty years.

The Couachi plant was identified as one of the plants used by the indigenous as a remedy against malaria

French law, meanwhile, does not recognize the existence of the indigenous communities of French Guiana, meaning that the IRD can prohibit anyone from using a malaria or cancer remedy which contains quassia amara , including the indigenous population, who not only contributed to the Institute's research, but also had a long tradition of using the couachi plant as a remedy for malaria. The indigenous community has been robbed of its own knowledge as well as its own history. Alexis Tiouka, a specialist lawyer for indigenous peoples, writes: “It is important to distinguish between the recognition of indigenous peoples under international law and the recognition of much older peoples and their own legal system, as seen from the view point of indigenous peoples. (...) International law cannot be the only binding legal reference for indigenous people.”

As a result of the complaint filed by NGOs against the IRD, the European Patent Office declared: “The use of the invention is neither contrary to morality nor to public policy” and thus completely overlooked the existence of ancient knowledge and the use of these plants in the traditional remedies. Alexis Tiouka summarised this: “You are saying that the indigenous communities are not familiar with the molecule (...) This is also how it relates to the appropriation of land: you do not name it, you do not occupy it, so the coloniser can appropriate it. The EPA and the IRD rely on the 'Terra nullius' theory to secure the rights to this molecule.”

The term 'decolonisation' has often been used in recent years, a call to rethink the unequal relations that Western institutions have with the dominated and/or racialised indigenous communities. It deconstructs the appropriation of knowledge and the material and immaterial heritage of the communities. To give old knowledge and traditional practices a new foundation, we must recognise that decolonisation is “not a metaphor,” as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue. “When metaphor invades decolonisation, it kills the very possibility of decolonisation; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory.”

Although it is difficult to find a common strategy to envisage a future emancipated from colonial rule - especially in the so-called French Guiana - the conclusions of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang point us towards an “an ethic of incommensurability” that does not try to balance the existence of colonialists and indigenous communities. On the contrary, they appeal to that ethic so that the “future indigenous” can be born as soon as the nation of the colonialists has disappeared: “Decolonisation offers a different perspective to human and civil rights based approaches to justice, an unsettling one, rather than a complementary one. Decolonisation is not an “and”. It is an elsewhere.”.

Translated by Bärbel Brands and Jess Smee



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