McAfee, Indigenous Knowledge, and Corruption in Belize
Thanks in large part to the adventures of anti-virus software pioneer John McAfee, some of the world’s attention has recently been focused on the tiny nation of Belize. I won’t rehash the entire story here, but in short, McAfee has had some run-ins with various levels of the Belizean government, and is now wanted for questioning in the murder of his neighbor. Fearing a set-up, McAfee has gone underground and continues to elude authorities three weeks later. While on the run, McAfee has started a blog (the Hinterland) to get his side of the story out, which includes bringing attention to widespread corruption in Belize. The story has been picked up by major and minor news outlets around the world, and it’s fair to say the attention brought upon Belize is not the most positive.
My interest in this story has two aspects, both stemming from the fact that I have made Belize my home for the better part of the last year and a half while conducting fieldwork on health and health care. I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. McAfee, but our paths did indirectly cross in 2009. It was October, and I was with a colleague at the ruins of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala. We had accompanied a small group of Maya healers to the annual Maya Day Celebrations, a sort of anti-Columbus Day protest/solidarity gathering. My colleague, an ethnobotanist also working in Belize, had arranged to meet Dr. Allison Adonizio, an ethnobotanist that had just been hired by McAfee to start a lab in Belize to develop new plant-based anti-bacterial products.
Dr. Adonizio was a friendly face, and was interested in meeting some of the healers that we work with in southern Belize. She explained her work and connection to McAfee, and while it sounded like an interesting project, I had my concerns. The history of pharmaceutical companies profiting off of the plant knowledge of indigenous peoples is well known, and can be categorized as outright exploitation. Little to no recognition has been afforded to the holders and developers of traditional plant knowledge, and even less of the profit has found its way back to them. I was worried something similar could happen here – and involve people that I know personally. I fall on the side of favoring Open Access and Fair Use in this new digital age, but there are different issues at stake when traditional and indigenous knowledge comes into play.
McAfee and Adonizio’s project never made it too far, and as far as I know, they did not capitalize on Maya traditional knowledge. However, my connection to McAfee doesn’t exactly stop there. His claims of widespread and deep-seated corruption throughout all levels of the Belizean government also ring true. McAfee’s wealth likely showed a different side of the corruption from what I was privy to, but I witnessed it nonetheless. For example, I have become close friends with a local family with one family-member who was a police officer. He was involved with the closing of the highway so that a small airplane carrying drugs could safely land at night to unload its cargo. He lost his job, but his actions did not appear to carry much stigma among family and neighbors. Cash is scarce in southern Belize, and any opportunities to make a little extra money are tempting. This is not to say that anyone would work for drug-money (most would not), but there is a general acknowledgement that sometimes people have to do what they have to do.
Corruption in Belize has also played a small part in my research. I have struggled to figure out how to frame these experiences, but I do believe it falls into the category of corruption. One example can illustrate my experience: a piece of my research is based on the diversity of ethnic groups in Belize. Most groups have a local “council” of community leaders that act in the interest of their given ethnic group – there are Maya councils, and East Indian, Kriol, and Garifuna councils. I approached the leaders of each of these councils to introduce myself and seek support and recommendations for my research. These introductions were one way that word of what I was doing in town was spread among the community, and in most cases these meetings led to a variety of good contacts and interviews.
In one case, however, my meeting with a council head did not go very far. This particular person was also a public official and had a relatively high profile in the community. We met a few times, and he even granted me a lengthy interview. He showed enthusiasm for my research, and offered to connect me to some of the more private aspects of the traditional health practices of his particular ethnic group. I would be able to witness private healing ceremonies and have wide access to speak with healers and those they work with. I would even be able to participate in some sacred ceremonies. The catch – all of this would come at a cost, starting with about $1500 up front to get us started.
Once it became clear that I didn’t have the money to spend, our conversations basically ceased. He would greet me around town if we ran into each other, but that was the extent of our interaction. I’m left wondering about the ethics of such a proposition. In this case, I didn’t have a choice because I didn’t have the money. But had I received a large grant, I would have been forced to consider taking this man up on his offer. It has become common practice among researchers to give small payments (in cash or kind) to research participants, but this would have taken things to a slightly different level. I don’t think it’s very clear where I would have stood on ethical ground if I made the pay-off and got access to this privileged information. I wonder where others of us stand?
In the end, I’ve been surprised to see the McAfee story plastered around the internet, and have tried to keep up with all of its developments. Perhaps most fascinating, however, are the connections and the ideas such a story forces us to confront: from a millionaire software pioneer to indigenous knowledge, political corruption, and research ethics.
douglas carl reeser is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, and is a contributing editor at Recycled Minds. He is currently working on his dissertation research in southern Belize, examining the intersection of State-provided health care with a number of ethnic-based traditional medicines. He also loves food.