The autonomy of indigenous and local communities is widely recognized by international, national, and local laws and customs. This autonomy includes the recognized rights of communities to grant permission to enter into agreements for access to their resources, including the commercial use of these resources based on fair and equitable benefit-sharing arrangements. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their allies have questioned the autonomy of local indigenous communities, which they claim have no rights to enter into agreements for bioprospecting projects. Efforts to limit the autonomy of local communities concerning commercial use of biological resources is tied to NGO opposition to any form of sustainable development which they believe contributes to globalization and exploitation of the developing countries of the South by the developed countries of the North. To achieve their goals, these groups have launched negative misinformation campaigns to discredit applied biodiversity research projects and the scientists who lead them. Although these NGOs have no legitimate authority to speak for local communities, their access to the press and the Internet provides them with a platform that allows them to be identified as the voice of the indigenous and local communities of the world. In this case study of the Maya ICBG project in Chiapas, Mexico, we describe how local community autonomy was taken from indigenous communities that had agreed to participate in an international development project on drug discovery, biodiversity conservation, and sustained economic development. A major lesson to be drawn from the Maya ICBG case is that local indigenous community autonomy, as envisioned in the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity, is more myth than reality in the access-to-biological-resources debate, especially in the politically charged climate of Mexico and Latin America.

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