Q’eros Resist DNA Sampling, But Larger Threat Looms

Earlier this month, leaders of Peru’s indigenous Q’eros people effectively blocked geneticists from collecting DNA samples from their community as part of National Geographic’s ongoing Genographic Project, which has been gathering DNA from people around the world.

Members of the Genographic Project had planned to arrive on May 7 to begin collecting samples from several Q’eros communities, located in an isolated province of the Cusco region. The Q’eros — who are the subject of a segment in Sacred Land Film Project’s upcoming film Losing Sacred Ground — are a traditional, shamanic people who self-identify as the “last Inca.”

According to a communique from the Asociación para la Naturaleza y el Desarrollo Sostenible (ANDES), a Cusco nonprofit, the U.S.-based project did not consult with local or regional authorities; rather, a local guide hired by the project sent only a one-page letter to the communities announcing the upcoming visit.

The letter, released by ANDES, invited families to come to a “fun” presentation on the study, which would include “a projector and pretty pictures,” in an effort to encourage them, young and old alike, to offer their DNA samples. “The benefit,” the letter said, “is that the people of Q’eros can know their ancestral roots … You can learn about your origin from centuries and centuries ago.”

But Benito Machacca Apaza, president of the Hatun Q’eros community, said in an ANDES press release, “The Q’ero Nation knows that its history, its past, present, and future, is our Inca culture, and we don’t need research called genetics to know who we are. We are Incas, always have been and always will be.”

Concerns were raised among the community over the project organizers’ failure to obtain informed consent and to follow local regulations. A Q’eros delegation brought those concerns to regional officials in Cusco, who agreed, saying the expedition violated a local ordinance on biological diversity that requires notarized evidence of informed prior consent, along with other documents, before collecting DNA. According to ANDES, this marked the first time that a local government in Peru applied an ordinance “in defense of its citizen’s genetic integrity.”

Project head Spencer Wells told ScienceInsider, “We have cancelled our visit to the Q’eros until we find out exactly what happened.”

Yet a larger biodiversity issue looms that threatens the way of life of the Q’eros and other Quechua communities in the region. On April 15 President Alan García signed a decree allowing the import and planting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country, which could compromise the native species of Peru — in particular, the potato — which sustain these Andean communities and form a core part of their cultural identity.

Alejandro Argumedo of ANDES said in an email message, “Cusco is the center of origin of the potato, with the highest diversity of potato varieties found anywhere in the world. As guardians of the potatoes, Andean communities have, within challenging political contexts that favor international commercial interests, fought to protect their biocultural heritage. These actions have been supported by local governments, such as the Cusco regional government, and have led to five regions producing decrees that prohibit the use of GMOs … All that has been accomplished over the last 10 years of actions against GMOs in order to protect Peru’s Peru’s high-quality natural, non-GMO crops is now being threatened.”

Opponents of the decree, including the farming communities around Cusco, have been mobilizing and converged in Lima last week to protest. Many opponents argue that the country hasn’t conducted enough research and development in the field, and they are asking for a 15-year moratorium on GMOs, to give Peru more time to build the research infrastructure needed to fully assess and make the best decisions on the use of GMO crops.

Peru’s Congress is expected to discuss just such a moratorium in a new proposed bill. Meanwhile, Peru’s Minister of Agriculture Rafael Quevedo recently resigned in the heat of criticism over his support of GMO crops and his position as director of a company that uses them.

Learn more about the Q’eros in our Cordillera Vilcanota sacred site report.

Glen Cove Protest Continues — How You Can Help

Now in its fourth week, the Glen Cove spiritual encampment in Vallejo, Calif., is still going strong as Native American activists and supporters continue their round-the-clock occupation of the sacred Ohlone burial site in an effort to protect it from development. (See previous SLFP news post.)

Although the protest has delayed construction at the 15-acre site, the Greater Vallejo Recreation District is pressing on with plans to install a parking lot, trails and visitor facilities by the shell mound known as Songorea Te. Last week, the GVRD board of trustees voted unanimously to forbid the public from the site once work begins, which would give police greater latitude to remove protesters.

The Protect Glen Cove Committee reports that the encampment has been receiving visits of support from from Native American representatives from throughout the region as well as other interested groups. A lawyer specializing in Native American law recently volunteered his support and services, as have some archeologists.

What You Can Do

  • If you live in the Bay Area, you can get a first-hand update from organizers and learn more about ways you can help at an informational event on Tuesday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Station 40, 3030 B 16th St., San Francisco.
  • Contact the Bay Trail project, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, that is administered by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) that was created to implement the Bay Trail, to ask them to divest their funding from the Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) park development project at Sogorea Te / Glen Cove.
  • Visit the spiritual encampment, write city officials or donate to the cause — these and many other ways you can help are described on the Protect Glen Cove Committee’s How to Help page.
  • Learn more about the issue by reading the About and Frequently Asked Questions pages on the Protect Glen Cove website. You can also learn more about the history of Native Californian shell mounds in our sacred site report.

Uranium Mining Resumes at Grand Canyon

After a nearly 20-year hiatus, uranium mining has resumed on public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon.

In late December 2009, Denison Mines Corp. began extracting high-grade uranium ore from its Arizona 1 mine, located about 10 miles from the boundary for Grand Canyon National Park.

The mine had been shut down in 1992, never having produced any ore, after a crash in uranium prices. However, with a rebound in prices in recent years and increasing uranium demand — including the Obama administration’s January announcement of major investment in the construction of new nuclear reactors — mining companies are looking to restart old mines and open new ones in northern Arizona, which reportedly holds the most concentrated source of uranium in the United States.

Renewed interest in uranium mining has put Native American tribes, environmental-protection advocates and other stakeholders on alert. In July 2009, members of the Havasupai Nation and their allies gathered at the Red Butte sacred site, on the south rim of the canyon, to address the reemerging threat.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is taking a cautious approach to ensure that communities, landscapes and watersheds are protected, it says. In July, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a two-year moratorium on the filing of new mining claims on the 1 million acres of federal lands near the Grand Canyon. During that time the department will consider imposing a 20-year restriction on new mine development. Also on the table is the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) in January 2009, which would withdraw the lands from mineral exploration.

“Over the next two years, we will gather the best science and input from the public, members of Congress, tribes and stakeholders, and we will thoughtfully evaluate whether these lands should be withdrawn from new mining claims for a longer period of time,” Salazar said in a statement.

The moratorium, however, doesn’t affect existing valid mine claims, which are protected by the outdated General Mining Act of 1872. According to the Bureau of Land Management, six mines are expected to reopen on the federal lands in question.

In November 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust sued the Bureau of Land Management for failing to update 1980s-era environmental reviews and mining plans before allowing Denison to reopen the Arizona 1 mine. The groups say the current mine claim is not valid, and thus subject to the moratorium. The suit is still pending.

Of particular concern is potential impact on groundwater and regional aquifers, which supply water districts including Las Vegas and Los Angeles. As a part of the Interior Department’s two-year review, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a series of studies to determine the effects of uranium mining on the natural resources of the region. The results, released Feb. 17, show elevated levels of uranium in wells, springs and soil around uranium exploration and mining sites.

Elsewhere in the Southwest, uranium mining threatens Native American sacred sites. New Mexico’s Mount Taylor — held holy by the Navajo, Acoma, Zuni and other tribes — sits atop a vast uranium deposit that has also attracted the attention of mining companies since the upsurge in uranium prices. In 2009, native tribes and environmental groups launched an effort to protect the mountain, which resulted in its receiving state protected status as traditional cultural property. (Read an excellent piece of long-form journalism on this complex story in High Country News.)

Visit the websites of the Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust for more information on uranium mining at the Grand Canyon and ways you can help.