Stevia: Indigenous knowledge, endangered herbs, and biopiracy
July 18, 2019 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Wild stevia grows in remote northeastern highlands along the border of Paraguay and Brazil. While not exactly unpleasant, the plant’s aroma is often referred to as “goat’s scent” by indigenous populations. The pungency does not suggest sweetness. “Western scientists did not ‘discover’ the usefulness of this plant—they were introduced to it by the Guaraní.” [...] Without the help of the Guaraní, there would be no stevia industry. But the plant is now critically endangered in the wild. [The] Guarani hope a lawsuit will help them save stevia’s native habitat and rescue the wild plant from extinction. The Indigenous Tribes Fighting to Reclaim Stevia From Coca-Cola (Atlas Obscura long read)

The Paî Tavyter’a and Kaiowá, two groups of the Guaraní people (Wikipedia x3), are indigenous to Paraguay and Brazil, and were the first to identify and utilize the herbal sweetener. They are working with partners like Miguel Lovera, an agronomist who dedicated his career to in situ plant conservation (PDF, Monsanto Tribunal), and a scientific advisor at Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones de Derecho Rural y Reforma Agraria (CEIDRA) de La Universidad Católica "Nuestra Señora de la Asunción" [Research on Rural Law and Agrarian Reform of the Catholic University of Asuncion].

As cited in the Atlas Obscura article, Michael F. Brown wrote "A compelling case of biopiracy: The Stevia story", which in turn cites work by the Swiss human rights organization, Public Eye (Google auto-translation; original website).

For more information in English on Stevia, here's two articles from Wikipedia, on Stevia rebaudiana, the wild form, and Stevia, the derivative sweetener.

See also:, posted in part previously, has resources for people who are looking to grow the herbal sweetener themselves, among other resources.
posted by filthy light thief (4 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
My first time around in college, I had a professor for Spanish-language classes who was from Uruguay and was Guaraní. His native language was Guaraní and he learned Spanish as he grew up and I guess had a knack for languages because he ended up immigrating to the U.S. to teach Esperanto at a university in Utah originally. I haven't thought of him in a long time but he was a really cool person and a great professor. He taught a sort of "for fun" class in addition to his regular language classes where we studied Spanish through current popular songs and we took a bus to the Tecate Valley in Mexico and did some wine and beer tasting and sang a lot of Spanish-language pop songs on the way down. Thanks for stirring up some nice memories with this post.
posted by primalux at 10:35 PM on July 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

The genie is out of the bottle for Stevia, but I worry about the future antibiotic/painkiller/etc that doesn't get shared with researchers because the looooong history of not actually paying for indigenous knowledge.
posted by MengerSponge at 6:47 AM on July 19, 2019

The genie is out of the bottle for Stevia

But the article notes that the Guaraní and their allies, including Paraguayan intellectual property lawyer Silvia Gonzalez (and CEIDRA’s lead legal advisor), are taking this biopiracy to court:
“We have an excellent precedent where indigenous people from Peru won back the rights to their traditional knowledge concerning Lepidium meyenii from a U.S. company in 2007,” Gonzalez explains. Similar to stevia, the case involved extracts taken from the maca plant. “Lawyers were able to use the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, and [pertinent U.S. legislation] to argue the patent derived from biopiracy and have it revoked.”
I worry about the future antibiotic/painkiller/etc that doesn't get shared with researchers because the looooong history of not actually paying for indigenous knowledge.

I imagine that groups similar to CEIDRA, who work to support indigenous people and protect their knowledge, could also work to utilize local knowledge to the benefit of the original discoverers of these plants. The major multi-national corporations aren't the only ones who are investing in R&D based on "newly" recognized plants.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:00 AM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I rely heavily on stevia as a sweetener and I was wondering how it was faring... you see it in restaurants in Peru and Chile as a sugar alternative as opposed to Equal or Sweet'N'Low. And of course now there's Truvia in the global North.

I should have known that some settler-led corporation was doing bad things with respect to the plant, but I'm glad that there's a fight going on over it.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:07 PM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

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