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By Michael Field

SAVAI`I, Samoa - Polynesian tradition and Western measurement strikingly converge at Falealupo, a small Samoan village whose matai or chiefs have joined modern science in a deal with worldwide implications.

The Samoan forest, carefully protected from logging exploitation, offers potential cures for AIDS and cancer, and, in a pioneering declaration, the Samoan Government has stuck its flag on a promising piece of genome from the bark of the mamala tree (Homalanthus nutans).

The location comes with the right magic for this.

An archipelago nation of nearly 200,000 people in the middle of the South Pacific, Samoa has long regarded itself as the "cradle of Polynesia". The picturesque village of Falealupo is at the far western end of Samoa's biggest island, Savai'i. It looks out toward the sun setting over the Pacific horizon, and the International Date Line, where the world's day ends with the setting sun.

Although Samoans were not consulted on the date line in 1884, Falealupo, population around 2,000, had a deeper connection with life's end game. In pre-Christian times, a rocky promontory called 'O Le Fafa was the place spirits went to, following death, and where they left the Earth for Palotu, or the underworld.

Falealupo is also the home of the goddess of war, Nafanua, the founder of ancient Samoa. Although a now obsessively Christian area (with several fiercely competing sects), and home to the Pacific's only cardinal, Pio Taofinu'u, the village still quietly respects the old ways. In times of crisis – and Falealupo has had a few in recent years – matai gather in a particular fale tele or meeting house. Uncharacteristically, they pull down the woven blinds for such meetings – but leave one up, so that Nafanua can join them.

Savai'i, the biggest Polynesian island outside of Hawaii and New Zealand, was blessed with rich tropical forest, but in 1967 the Samoan Government gave an American company, Potlatch, permission to start logging from a mill at Asau, just down the northern coast from Falealupo. In what turned out to be a linked event, in 1973 a young American Mormon, Paul Alan Cox, showed up in Samoa on the standard missionary enterprise. He quickly mastered Samoan and began to hear stories of Samoan healing, using the plants from the increasingly threatened jungle.

Cox later gained a PhD in botany from Harvard. While he was teaching at Brigham Young University in 1984, his mother died of breast cancer. As he writes in Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rain Forest (1997), Cox had avoided medicine in his professional career, but that death changed things: "I vowed I would do whatever I could to fight the disease that killed my mother."

Cox packed up his family and went back to Samoa, to catalogue the hidden pharmacological riches of the rain forest. His first contact, a fofo or healer called Pela, showed him a variety of plants. Cox told her that if he was successful in his work, the village could make a lot of money.

"I'm not interested in money," she replied. "The plants are a gift of God. I never accepted any payment for treating people …"

In time, Cox was able to find the basis for five drugs, which are undergoing varying degrees of evaluation. The most promising is the potentially AIDS-fighting protein prostratin.

Another fofo, Epenesa Mauigoa, made a concoction from mamala to treat hepatitis. Cox sent samples to the US National Cancer Institute, which in 1991 isolated prostratin, now under testing and development at the University of California, Berkeley.

New drugs take decades to develop. Meanwhile, the village needed a school and it seemed that the only way to pay for it was to sell cutting rights on their forest. Instead, Cox raised the money, provided that the village left the forest alone.

In February 1989 he signed, with 50 matai, "The Falealupo Covenant", whose purpose was "preserving forever the rainforests of the Falealupo peninsula", although in legal terms the deal was for 50 years.

"We, the chiefs and orators of Falealupo, covenant to allow in perpetuity Dr Paul Alan Cox and his associates access to our rainforests for the purposes of scientific research including the search for Samoan medicines as long as these efforts do not damage the forest," the covenant said.

"If the efforts of Koki (Paul Cox) in finding new drugs from the plants of Falealupo are successful, he will return to the village 33 percent of the income received."

The work continued and Cox himself, and a not-for-profit organization called Seacology, funded Falealupo, so far to the tune of US$485,000. Its best-known enterprise has been a dramatic rainforest canopy walkway, which has become one of Samoa's top tourist attractions.

In something of an awesome commitment – at least in Samoan culture – the village bestowed a matai title on Cox; the title was that of Nafanua.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), signed in 1992, recognizes a nation's sovereignty over its own biodiversity. Using this, in October last year, the Samoan Government and the University of California signed a deal in which Samoa asserted its sovereignty over the undiscovered genome from mamala tree bark, necessary in making prostratin.

It is debatable whether mamala is unique to Samoa, as the homalanthus genus occurs across the Pacific, but Samoan -officials take a very practical view of it all.

"What we are doing now is getting the rights, so that when they need to proceed [with the drug] they will have to get it from Samoa," says Commerce Minister Joe Keil.

They were legally asserting Samoa's heritage and property. "That way we don't have to argue about it later and have law suits back and forward."

Keil says it is too early to quantify what Samoa could earn, but that Cox has had over 30 years' association with Falealupo and its nationally known fofo.

"Maybe the other islands are thinking, 'Why didn't we do the same thing?' but we're grateful we've got Paul Cox working for us; he has Samoa very much at heart."

It is a good agreement and if the gene is proven scientifically to be useful, then "it's good for the world", says Keil.

"And we have the rights to the research, and we – only in Samoa – can produce or harvest the mamala tree, so that they have to deal with us and the people in Samoa."

He believes that if prostratin is successful, Samoa will have a new kind of logging industry, but the deal is much more sophisticated than that. Chances are, with the right bits of DNA located from the bark, prostratin could be synthesized without the need for any trees. However, Samoa, and Falealupo, will own the formula, and they will get the licensing revenue – real trees or not.

Nevertheless, some locals are not happy. Environmentalist Clark Peteru from Falealupo says, "This deal is being hailed by some, but it is not as rosy as it looks. We are being told it is good for us, and that it is for our own good, but it is very paternalistic."

When prostratin was discovered, he says, "the decision to claim ownership over the chemical was made without consultation with the people of Samoa.

"Patents were taken out on prostratin seven years ago in the names of three United States organizations, including the university where Cox had been teaching. To me," says Peteru, "that's an attack on sovereignty, not a defense of it."

Cox believes this may be the first time indigenous people have extended their national sovereignty over a gene sequence.

"Samoa's extension of sovereignty over the gene sequence for prostratin falls well within the scope of the CBD, since the discovery of the anti-viral properties of prostratin, a molecule derived from the bark of the mamala tree, can be traced directly to traditional healing knowledge of the Samoan people."

Yes, homalanthus does occur in other Pacific Islands, "yet no other nation has collaborated so freely with scientists in the study of homalanthus and no other nation can claim that its indigenous knowledge led directly to the discovery of the anti-viral properties of prostratin".

Cox cites a CBD article in which the parties to the convention commit themselves to maintaining the traditional knowledge of their indigenous people, to ensure that indigenous knowledge is developed, and that equitable benefits resulting from the knowledge are shared with the traditional custodians of that knowledge.

Samoan educator Gaugau Tavana, who works in Hawaii's National Tropical Botanical Garden, strongly denies claims that Cox was a "bio prospector". Tavana says, "He is deeply concerned about the welfare of the Samoan people he loves and has done all he could to defend Samoa's sovereignty, as clearly stated not only in the agreement but in many good deeds he has done."

Tavana sees Cox as an advocate in the preservation and development of -traditional knowledge and intellectual property right.

January 25, 2005

Michael Field:

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