Brazil's Indians are taking steps to protect their intellectual property rights, specifically their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants from the tropical rainforest. An indigenous commission is working to prevent this knowledge from being exploited, while also developing ways native tribes can benefit from collaborating with bioprospecting firms.

Over the decades, researchers have taken the medicinal plants traditionally used by indigenous peoples in South America and turned them into medicines and pharmaceutical products that are available around the world.

Anesthetics, anti-conception and fertility drugs, and headache medicines have been developed from plants and substances traditionally used by Indians. Yet the Indians have derived few benefits from sharing their knowledge with the outside world. And they feel exploited.

Vilmar Moura Guarany is the acting general coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Rights at Brazil's Indian Agency, known as FUNAI. Mr. Guarany said the situation has become intolerable. "What can not continue is what is happening now. That is, many communities are not even receiving one-cent for this," he said. "When a book is published or medicines are being developed, they are not even mentioned as a source. So 100 percent of their rights are being denied they are not given any recognition nor do they receive any benefits."

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro approved a Convention of Biological Diversity to help developing nations protect their resources. In compliance with this convention, Brazil enacted a law last year to stop biopiracy.

The measure bans access and commercialization of what it calls the country's "genetic patrimony", unless otherwise authorized by the government. The law calls for the protection of traditional knowledge of indigenous communities from being exploited. It also allows these communities to decide how to use their traditional knowledge within the law.

But this could prove complicated. There are 215 tribes in Brazil, not including 53 groups of peoples isolated from the outside world. The use of certain varieties of plants for medicinal purposes is common to many tribes. Mr. Guarany said this situation can lead to disputes. "This happens because of the indigenous diversity in Brazil. For example, if you are working on something related to traditional knowledge of the Guarani peoples, the Guarani are spread throughout Brazil from the south to the north. So these research projects have to be well thought out, in a framework that includes all the communities when such knowledge is common to all," he said.

There is no clear way to sort this out. The lack of legislation has stopped successful bioprospecting firms from investigating traditional medicines.

The Rio-based company "Extracta", which has a contract with the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKlein, is staying away from traditional plants. Extracta head Antonio Paes de Carvalho said for now they are concentrating on the 65,000 plant species in the Brazilian rainforest whose medicinal properties are unknown. "It is not that we would not like to do it, because it is exciting the idea of exploring what you can do with these societies," he said. "But we figured that the legislation is not yet sufficiently clear, and nobody anywhere in the world exactly knows what they are going to do with traditional knowledge rights, how do they relate to patent rights, how do you handle that. In my view this is going to be a very tough system to set up."

In May, indigenous activists created a Commission to deal with collective intellectual property rights, while better protecting Indians from biopiracy. The non-governmental Indigenous Commission for Intellectual Property aims to provide information to indigenous communities about their rights and propose laws to the government.

FUNAI's Vilmar Moura Guarany, who is active in the Comission, said the key is organizing indigenous communities. "We need to tell Indian leaders that they need to be organized. If they have an association to deal specifically with traditional knowledge and that represents all the communities, then these problems are avoided," he said. "It is a question of raising awareness and organizing. This commission on indigenous intellectual property is the first commission to think about these issues in a specific way, because the indigenous question embraces so many issues."

The Commission is working with universities, researchers, and others to develop proposals, which it hopes to present to the World Trade Organization. But Commission members agree it will be a long process before indigenous traditional knowledge is completely protected and the benefits from this knowledge equitably shared among all Indian groups.