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Potential Impacts on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities

The history of science and technology is rich with examples of well-intentioned advances having unintended consequences. Researchers and managers must take a precautionary approach to gene drive technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9, and engage indigenous communities in any proposed application of gene drives in the Pacific. Many areas considered for gene drives are within ancestral territory of indigenous peoples, who are hereditary stewards of the lands and waters on which they depend for survival and cultural identity. Gene drives have the potential to impact indigenous territories and significant places, biocultural and subsistence resources, and traditional and customary practices.

Learning from past advances in technology such as the internal combustion engine’s contribution to climate change and synthetic chemicals exacerbating environmental pollution, conservation scientists would be well advised to take a precautionary approach to gene drive technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9. These inventions were well-intentioned for the benefit of mankind, simply with less consideration given to the environment and other organisms that constitute the ecosystem biodiversity.


The increasing use of gene-editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 gene drive that allow modified DNA to race through a population so effortlessly also increase the chances that some of these modified organisms may deviate and spread to new territories unintentionally (Milius, 2017). For example, the Predator Free 2050 approach being implemented in New Zealand to rid the island nation of possums may affect other Pacific Island nations such as the Soloman Islands, which views the possum as a traditional delicacy. There is a high probability of the modified New Zealand possum to be inadvertently introduced into the Solomon Islands, which will consequently eradicate its local population, removing a traditional food source from the indigenous people’s diets. Such fear has led to the call for preventing gene drives in biodiversity conservation by renowned scientists such as David Suzuki and Jane Goodall, who openly oppose gene drives and call it “genocidal genes” on ecological and moral grounds (Synbiowatch, 2016).


Weaker forms of gene drive technology are daisy drive, self-limiting, and the Trojan Female Technique (Noble et al., 2016; Min et al., 2017; Wolff et al., 2017). These are approaches where descendants in later generations become less likely to inherit all the spaced-apart pieces needed to operate the gene drive. In theory, such weaker approaches will act as a self-regulatory mechanism in which modified organisms introduced into a particular ecosystem die off by themselves after one or two generations, without passing on the modified gene traits. These genes do not need to last forever, only long enough to contribute to the eradication of pests and diseases.


While scientists, engineers and conservationists discuss gene drive technologies and its impact on biodiversity, indigenous peoples and communities, who are custodians of the biodiversity resources, are hardly involved in these discussions. It is only proper that these important stakeholders are brought into a wider discussion on gene drives. Furthermore, impacts of gene drives and synthetic biology could affect the very livelihoods of indigenous peoples. If a gene drive-modified organism becomes rogue in the ecosystem, it will have a collective impact on all aspects of indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, including their traditional knowledge and practices.


Impacts to Indigenous Territories and Places of Significance


Tribal and indigenous peoples are hereditary stewards of lands and waters in many nations worldwide. Many areas considered for gene drive research and implementation fall within the historical areas currently occupied by existing indigenous peoples. Typically, these are places considered ancestral homelands and traditional ranges of native residents, with resources the communities depend on and which are essential in maintaining cultural identity. “Most tribes and indigenous groups have the inherent authority to designate areas of cultural importance to their people. These designations typically do not extend beyond their own members or the legally recognized geographic boundaries under tribal or indigenous authority” (MPA FAC, 2011: 11). Heritage sites and areas designated and valued by native peoples are vital components of the rich history of many nations worldwide.


The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in collaboration with UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme created guidelines for protected area managers. The IUCN guidelines recognize tribal and indigenous peoples as the “custodians” of their sacred sites and notes that for some groups this means “ownership” of the site while for others it does not. In some instances, determining past and present custodians is relatively simple when “a clearly identifiable group of people with well-defined authority and leadership structures” are in place. In some cases, there can be more than one custodial group and these may “be dispersed and diffuse” (MPA FAC, 2011: 14).


In the U.S., there are various concepts in historic preservation law for describing indigenous territories and places of significance. First, the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP, or National Register) provides Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs). Second, National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) legislation and Section 106 implementing regulations (36 C.F.R. 800) identify "historic properties of religious and cultural significance to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations." Third, the Secretary of the Interior’s Treatment Standards provide Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes.


Additionally, a landmark collaborative project recently defined “tribal cultural landscape” (TCL) as “any place in which a relationship, past or present, exists between a spatial area, resource, and an associated group of indigenous people whose cultural practices, beliefs, or identity connects them to that place. A tribal cultural landscape is determined by and known to a culturally related group of indigenous people with relationships to that place” (Ball et al, 2017: 8). TCL is also an analytical framework and an approach for proactive equitable consultation, including processes for implementation, and ongoing adaptive management grounded in traditional knowledge. TCL is intended to create a platform for federally recognized tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, Alaska Native corporations, non-federally recognized tribes, state recognized tribes, and other indigenous communities to clearly articulate their connection to and interest in a given place. This concept allows potentially affected communities to provide context to agencies relevant to projects that may affect vitally important resources or significant places known only by indigenous groups. Biotechnology was not necessarily envisioned as a potential application of TCL, but many of its principles and processes could be adapted to gene drive research and implementation.


Governments and scientists should respect the traditional authority and ability of native peoples to manage and maintain their cultural and natural heritage, and territories and places. Gene drive implementation has considerable potential to cross borders and have impacts far beyond organism release sites. Ricciardi and Simberloff (2009, 2014) raise the potential for likely occurrence of unanticipated deleterious impacts on recipient ecosystems and/or further alterations to natural ecosystems. It is therefore incumbent on the proponents of gene drive research to properly inform, engage and work with potentially affected groups throughout all phases of research and implementation. Proper consultation with affected parties must be conducted in order to fulfill legal obligations and to protect the historic and legal rights of concerned indigenous peoples (MPA FAC, 2011).


Some experts on gene drive technology for biodiversity conservation question its suitability for conservation work (Esvelt & Gemmell, 2017). Gemmell is cautious of the unintended causes of standard self-propagating organisms becoming uncontrollable, and therefore believes conservation work is not necessarily a suitable application of gene drive technology. Esvelt says “no one should even be building a drive system like this to solve a conservation problem. It’s just too early and we don’t know enough yet.”



Potential additional impacts include:


  • The risk of a self-propagating CRISPR-based gene drive system giving rise to a new, highly invasive species and spreading to any viable ecosystem, which would cause irreversible ecological change.

  • Impacts on indigenous peoples and communities will be vast according to Goldman (2016), who reported that 80% of recorded extinctions have occurred on islands and 40% of the world’s endangered and threatened species are island dwellers (Goldman, 2016). The leading cause of these extinctions is invasive rodents. Based on these reports, there is a real fear that if gene drives were unintentionally brought onto an island, a catastrophic result similar to the disappearance of early settlers on Rapa Nui will be repeated, due largely to biodiversity loss.


Impacts to Biocultural and Subsistence Resources


When dealing with genetic engineering technologies, the potential for off-target damage is real (Bomgardner, 2017). Off-target damage results from the unintended consequences of carefully vetted and tested activities. One important example of off-target damage resulted from a genetically engineered soy bean developed by Monsanto, now Bayer, to be resistant to the volatile herbicide dicamba. This seed became hugely popular among farmers, as it allowed for renewed use of dicamba, a powerful weed killer. This development was critical to farmers, who struggled to find a suitable combination of seed and herbicide in the wake of weeds developing resistance to the popular Monsanto/Bayer manufactured herbicide Roundup, also known as glyphosate.


Ideally, farmers should have been able to plant the new dicamba-resistant soy bean seeds, apply the herbicide as instructed, and not impact neighboring crops. This was not the case. Neighboring farmers filed claims alleging significant off-target damage that is currently being investigated (Bomgardner, 2017). While there are obvious differences between this case and gene drives, it nonetheless shows that challenges of genetically engineered technologies can include unpredicted results and wide-spread off-target damage. Indeed, Goldman warns that, “some of the most powerful forms of gene drives are hard to control or reverse, and without the proper biosecurity mechanisms they could theoretically spread beyond the target population to impact an entire species” (2016).


Where indigenous peoples and local communities are concerned, impacts to natural resources and species are particularly significant. The concept of biocultural rights emphasizes the interrelated nature of indigenous resources; the existence of indigenous cultural resources is dependent on indigenous natural resources and vice versa. As a legal construct, biocultural rights would integrate the current fragmented and separate systems of natural and cultural resource management, and indigenous rights thereto. Some have called for caution to proceed with the creation of new rights (Heald & Sherry, 2000), but biocultural rights would not be additional new rights for indigenous groups. Rather it is a concept that unifies the existing resource rights of indigenous peoples.


The concept of biocultural rights asserts that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their distinct biocultural heritage, which is essential to the maintenance of biodiversity and cultural diversity worldwide. Indeed, many indigenous societies across the globe are fighting for control of, or even access to, their ancestral lands and natural and cultural resources, upon which the survival of traditional cultures depends. Lack of current law and regulations to manage gene drive technology at both the national and international level will further exacerbate these struggles. 


Potential additional impacts include:


  • An introduced species intended to create have a gene drive effect would colonize the ecosystem and create a plethora of changes, particularly on the species and community levels. As a hypothetical example, the eradication of possums or feral cats would enable other organisms such as bats, lizards and birds to increase in population and dominate their habitat, giving rise to new dominance by other organisms that adapt well to the newly established environment in which they live.

  • As another hypothetical example, a CRISPR gene-driven plant possessing resistance to pests and diseases could dominate the local flora and cross pollinate other plant species of the same family, becoming an invasive species itself.

  • Traditional farming practices, fishing and hunting rights


Impacts to Traditional and Customary Practices


While significant improvements have been made in integrating traditional knowledge (TK) into conservation work, there is still more work to be done. Industrial as well as conservation activities still adversely impact indigenous territories, both those recognized by national governments and those without government recognition. In particular, areas of traditional and customary practice (ATCPs) should be protected. These are areas which have been historically utilized by indigenous peoples or local communities for subsistence or cultural purposes. This relationship is evidenced through providence or oral history. ATCPs can contain sites of historic, cultural, sacred, or natural significance, and are important to the environmental and cultural well-being of the ecosystem and community. ATCPs are imperiled in that they are usually unrecognized by government actors and usually not under the governance or control of the indigenous peoples or local communities that rely upon them. They can be owned or operated by governments or private owners. In this regard, they can often be sites of conflict or controversy. Indigenous peoples or local communities nonetheless have significant historic ties to these areas and their resources, and that relationship is worthy of recognition, as it is vital to the well-being of the indigenous peoples and local community.


Indigenous communities have also been placed at center stage of the international environmental movement, during which the debates have touched on various parts of the lives of Indigenous communities, such as cultural autonomy, traditional hunting and fishing practices, and traditional knowledge (Firestone et al., 2005). For example, the importance of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has been widely acknowledged, as evidenced by the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity that covers traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources (Bavikatte & Robinson, 2011; McGregor, 2012).


A mechanism commonly used to protect indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage is intellectual property (IP) laws. The commodification of intangible cultural and intellectual property such as music, motifs, prayers, ceremonies, and traditional knowledge, as well as the alarming issue of “biopiracy” has been frustrating to many indigenous communities (Daes, 1995; Robinson, 2010).


The current legal frameworks have been inadequate in protecting indigenous cultural and intellectual property (Paterson & Karjala, 2003). The modes of classification, identification, and operation used under the current IP system of European origins (Deazley, 2004) are not compatible with indigenous peoples’ understanding of their knowledge and cultural practices (Bell & Napolean, 2008). Furthermore, the present IP system that is mainly concerned with the protection of individual intellectual property does not take the interests of indigenous communities into account, as indigenous intellectual property is largely communal and connected to indigenous land and natural resources (Davis, 1996/1997). Therefore, indigenous peoples need to play a much bigger role in the decision-making process (Goldberg & Badua, 2008).

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