Indigenous peoples and local communities will require a seat at the table in any discussions regarding release of gene drive modified organisms into the environment. This emerging technology in synthetic biology is intended to reduce threats from invasive species but may also inflict unforeseen impacts on an ecosystem. Especially in the Pacific, indigenous peoples face increased harm to their places, resources, and practices. As decision-makers create policies and guidelines for gene drive research, indigenous peoples must be proactively engaged.
As biotechnologies continue to evolve and emerge, scientists nudge closer to releasing genetically modified and/or engineered species that have been developed using CRISPR gene editing techniques into the environment with the purpose of reducing or eliminating invasive species. While many are expressing concerns about the safety of such actions, too few are discussing the potential ramifications on indigenous peoples and local communities resulting from use of this technology. Historically, intentional releases of non-native species into fragile, native ecosystems have proven to have devastating consequences on these environments and their indigenous peoples and local communities, disproportionately so in the Pacific and Oceania. As the majority of the globe’s invasive alien species are located within the Pacific region, this geographic area and its indigenous and local populations are likely targets for these ongoing field experiments. This paper outlines the necessity for codifying legal rights and mechanisms for indigenous peoples and local communities related to any synthetic biology and gene drive activities taking place on indigenous territories or within areas of traditional or customary use.
While the technologies being developed by researchers in the field of synthetic biology may be new, the aspirations to intentionally modify environments and/or ecosystems to produce a specific, desired result are not new. For centuries, researchers have introduced species into wild environments for a wide range of purposes: agriculture, horticulture/ornamental trade, biological control, landscape or coastal stabilization, and trade. In many cases, as this briefing paper will show, intentional releases of foreign species into fragile ecosystems have been for conservation purposes, specifically biological control (or “biocontrol”). In too many cases, these foreign species became invasive alien species (“IAS”), creating lasting, unforeseen adverse impacts on the ecosystem.
For indigenous peoples and local communities who have centuries-old, sometimes millennia-old, connections to these environments and their resources, the adverse ecological impacts are devastating. They impact subsistence resources, but they also severely compromise the perpetuation of traditional and customary practices, which rely upon a sustainable and healthy ecosystem. Simply put, when species are lost, cultural practices are often lost as well.
The emerging debate around synthetic biology and gene drives is intriguing, but not necessarily new to indigenous peoples and local communities. The practice of scientists bringing their latest technologies into the fragile worlds of indigenous peoples has a long history. As we have learned from experience, even with the strictest of protocols and after the most successful lab outcomes, results in the wild cannot be fully predicted.
As biotechnologies continue to evolve and emerge, scientists nudge closer to releasing genetically modified and/or engineered species that have been developed using CRISPR gene editing techniques into the environment with the purpose of reducing or eliminating invasive species (Leitschuh et al. 2017; Moro et al. 2018). While the stated intent is benign, as always, the actual outcomes may not be. Therefore, it is essential that indigenous peoples and local communities, who are likely to impacted first and most by any adverse impacts of these efforts have every opportunity to fully participate in decision making regarding the development, approval, field testing, and implementation of synthetic biology and, gene drives. Additionally, these communities should have the right to deny researchers and corporations the opportunity to release these engineered or synthetic products, especially living modified organisms, into the wild if doing so may adversely impact indigenous territories or areas of traditional or customary practice.