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Indigenous washing: the exploitation of indigenous people by the pharmaceutical industry

Waterfall surrounded by forest

Article written by Jemima Lowe and Kirran Ahmad

Indigenous populations¹ are active stewards of our planet and resources, safeguarding 80% of global diversity. They make up 6% of the world’s population and occupy roughly 25% of the world’s surface meaning they are often positioned in resource-rich locales. However, indigenous rights, responsibilities and values are often in conflict with the economic interests of companies and countries. A United Nations Environment Programme report has suggested that resource exploitation places increasing threats and destruction to these habitats and cultures, placing them at the forefront of the conversation. In this article we define a new term; Indigenous washing, to describe the growing deceptive practices employed by institutions in an attempt to cover up pharmaceutical firms mishandling of these regions and resources.

What is indigenous washing?

Indigenous washing is closely linked to greenwashing², a term that is now synonymous with the climate movement, relating to companies providing misleading information on sustainability efforts as they scrabble to protect their reputations.

The term ‘indigenous washing’ is similar to what has been termed “RedWashing”:

a term to describe the deception of the general public by government and industry in trying to cover up their theft of indigenous peoples lands, natural resources and cultural riches by pretending that they are acting in the best interests of the native peoples. The term is coined in analogy to greenwashing.” – First Nations

However, ‘RedWashing’ is a term that relates to the specific history of Indian-American People. Therefore the term ‘Indigenous Washing’ seeks to be more inclusive of the entirety of indigenous people around the globe. The term ‘indigenous washing’ refers to:

the deception of the general public by government, industry or company through the inclusion of superficial statements that infer they are acting in the best interest of locals in an attempt to cover up the theft of indigenous peoples lands, natural resources and cultural riches. It seeks to discourage the increasing issues associated with misleading action.” – Drug Science

As far as the authors are aware, this is the first time this term has been used and there are numerous clear examples of this such as:

Disingenuous promotion of indigenous people’s rights: This can be seen at conferences where representatives from pharmaceutical companies declare that the rights of indigenous people are at the forefront of ‘Pharma company’s’ mind when making decisions, but when the company is questioned on what is actually being done to address this issue, they fail to corroborate.

Grants & funding: a company may get a grant/funding dedicated to helping local communities. This money is often then spent on hiring a team of foreign internationals to conduct interviews with indigenous people about their views on the topic, rather than being received by the local community.

Images and words: using pictures of indigenous people on websites as a marketing ploy. These images infer companies have relationships with these communities and that they are embracing ‘ancient wisdom.’ In fact they are being used as a poster child for the benefit of the company.

Many of our modern-day medicines are based on naturally sourced compounds. For example, diamorphine comes from poppies and is used as a painkiller, diazepam comes from valerian root and aspirin’s main ingredient, salicin, comes from a willow tree. These natural resources are well understood by indigenous people and form part of their knowledge and rituals. More recently in the development of psychedelic medicines, ibogaine is considered a treatment for addiction and is thus being developed by pharmaceutical companies. Ibogaine is extracted from the root of a naturally occurring shrub (T.Iboga) found in the rainforests of Gabon and converted into ibogaine hydrochloride (the most common form used in the west). Western ibogaine research is founded on traditional people stewarding this medicine and knowledge for millennia. However, due to an increase in international demand, many of these communities no longer have access to this resource and this then threatens the existence of their ancient cultures and heritage. Drug companies argue that the motive to fully synthesise the molecule is to take pressure off the natural resource which fails to acknowledge their role and collective responsibility in the issues. The separation that occurs in synthesis symbolises an additional separation of responsibility of the drug company to fully respect these locales where the drug originated from and to compensate them fairly.

The solution : The 3 R’s

Indigenous Washing is as real as greenwashing. Just as the climate crisis requires action (reduce, reuse, recycle), a solution to direct action against Indigenous Washing involves a fresh three R’s: Representation, Respect and Reciprocity.

We propose considering boundedly ethicality³ as an approach, to solve the immediate, shorter-term ‘exploitation of indigenous medicines’ that is in close alignment with the Grandmother’s Wisdom Project. A project inspired by the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. This refers to a collaborative approach of a diverse group of indigenous elders, who have deep, nature-based wisdom around respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and empathy for nature. Their 3R’s closely relating to some of our suggestions for a solution below:

A multi-coloured diagram showing representation, respect & rights and Reciprocity Rebates

Respect & Rights

On September 13th, 2007 the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which sets a precedent for how Indigenous People deserve to be treated globally (although it is not legally binding). This declaration has since been ratified by 143 countries and was a critical moment for securing indigenous rights worldwide.

This needs to be further embedded into our systems through proven action, which is where laws to protect local rights are enacted. The global laws that protect these indigenous people can serve as an instrument to protect their physical, cultural property and heritage that is so often tied up with medicinal plant compounds handled by pharmaceutical countries (Iboga, Ayahuasca, Poppies).

Reciprocity Rebates

The often stated ‘fact’ that indigenous people have used these medicines (often from psychedelic plants) for “thousands of years” is an overgeneralisation as many of indigenous people across the world have never used psychedelics. It is only small pockets and communities and those communities are the ones that deserve something from these pharma companies.

Money leaves traces and is a useful contractual medium of exchange. A monetary form of rebate can be seen through the ‘Continual Cycle’, where 5% of an organisation’s profits are given back to local communities as a standard and incorporated rebate. However, handing large amounts of money to communities with no provision of support can cause disruption/competition and destabilisation of groups. Instead, it is critical to have a dialogue with local elders who have been given the rights to speak on behalf of these communities or inter-cultural intermediaries who have worked on the ground with people and understand what is required and how best this should be distributed. For example, helping to encourage income-generating activities or providing food. It is not about what companies think is best, especially when they have little understanding of the local cultures.

The Nagoya protocol is a UN declaration that exists on benefit sharing when using a genetic resource that originates from a particular country. Gabon is the first country in the world to sign up for the Nagoya protocol with a psychoactive substance, Iboga. Under this protocol, if a company is profiting from the natural resource of Iboga (which originates in Gabon) then they are obligated to share their benefits in a fair way. We would like to see more companies working under the Nagoya protocol framework.


A huge issue associated with indigenous washing is the lack of intercultural understanding. There is an ever-growing need for “intermediaries” to bridge this gap and help to build a shared understanding that erodes the abyss of inherited worldviews, separating indigenous people and westernised nations. Blessings of the Forest are an example of this in Gabon. This has also often been the work of anthropologists.

Incorporating these three R’s into decision-making is our suggested approach to improving the lives of those whose communities have been most harmed by pharmaceutical exploitation. It is by no means a definitive solution, and while it might work in some contexts with some indigenous groups, others may require different interventions to fulfil specific needs. Contrary to what some companies may tell you, not all indigenous groups are the same and so each solution will be context-specific, catering to the individual needs of said group. So there’s a need for some flexibility.

The synthesis of plant medicines continues to grow, becoming integral to the pharmaceutical industry. The separation of responsibility that can occur with synthesis requires consideration of these three R’s to increase trust and transmission across sociocultural networks. Indigenous communities are culturally very rich due to their connection with nature and understanding of community; we have a huge amount to learn from them. This free exchange of rich knowledge and resources must be fairly endorsed and respected.

Indigenous people are the stewards of global biodiversity and medicine for which our societies will increasingly rely upon. Indigenous washing is a result of the fast-growing form of expansionism present in the pharmaceutical industry and pressure must be placed on these firms to behave ethically and responsibly when it comes to respecting these stewards, valuing action over meaningless promises.

If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. African Proverb

(1) For the purpose of this article, “indigenous peoples” is defined as Duffy (2008)’s four-part definition: “1. Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of territories subsequently invaded by external forces, who retain some kind of connection to their homeland, whether it is physical, cultural or metaphysical. 2. Indigenous peoples self-identify as peoples or tribes distinct from other societies. 3. Indigenous peoples are culturally (economically, politically, socially or linguistically) different from the dominant culture that prevails in the same territory or nearby territories. 4. Indigenous peoples’ efforts to preserve culture, a connection to land and identity are contested as a result of impinging material and economic interests of states and others” (507).

(2) Greenwashingis the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. For example, companies involved in greenwashing behavior might make claims that their products are recycled or have energy-saving benefits. Although some of the environmental claims might be partly true, companies engaged in greenwashing typically exaggerate their claims or the benefits in an attempt to mislead consumers.

(3) Bazerman, M.H., & Tenbrunsel, A.E. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. Princeton University Press, 2011.

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