© Florian Kopp
Stevia has been presented as a new groundbreaking innovation in sweeteners. More "natural" products that contain stevia are arriving on the market every day. In 2015, a Public Eye report uncovered the hidden face of this very lucrative market: the Guarani people from Paraguay and Brazil, who discovered the plant's sweetening powers, do not receive any share in the profits earned using their ancestral knowledge.

A blatant case of biopiracy

Drinks, chocolate, sweets... new products containing steviol glycoside appear on the market every day. For 2015, the turnover it generated, which is growing fast, was already estimated to be between eight and eleven billion Swiss francs. A "miracle" plant with natural sweetening properties used by the Guarani for centuries, which is taking the market by storm as an alternative to sugar. It sounds a bit like some form of modern-day fairytale! But is it really? Public Eye's "The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia" report published in November 2015 explores what's really going on.

Multinationals are making themselves wealthier at the expense of the Guarani

The sale of steviol glycoside is a classic case of "biopiracy": an illegitimate appropriation of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, in force since 1993, is supposed to stop exactly this kind of abuse, since it states that the consent of autochthonous communities is required for the commercial use of "their" resources ("prior informed consent"). They must also be provided a fair share of the benefits derived from the use of their resources ("access and sharing of benefits"). Specifically, this means that if someone wants to use stevia for commercial purposes, then the Guarani people and the states of Brazil and Paraguay must have the choice of consenting, or not, and where applicable they must receive a share of the resulting benefits.

But the reality of what is actually happening is far removed from the model laid down by the convention. The current situation has been allowed to develop since neither the Convention on Biological Diversity nor the agreement regulating its implementation, the Nagoya Protocol, are properly applied by some countries, while others, including the United States, have yet to ratify them. As such, nefarious actors in the food and drinks industry continue to enrich themselves with impunity as they use "stolen" resources. Currently, small farms that grow stevia can get by in their role as suppliers, but meanwhile a number of multinational companies are racing to register patents to ensure they get as much as they can from this juicy new market. At the end of 2014, more than 1000 patent requests associated with stevia had already been registered , 450 of which were specifically for steviol glycosides. From the latter, 46% were deposited by just eight companies. The companies registering the most patent requests were the multinationals Cargill and Coca-Cola.

Using synthetic biology

Paraguay and Brazil play a very limited role in the sale of stevia plants to companies that extract glycosides. In 2011, 80% of all the stevia produced for commercial use came from China. Paraguay only produced 5%, while Brazil produced a mere 3%. The most common model is for the stevia to be grown by small scale producers that grow a range of crops. This plant has vast potential, because despite the considerable work that goes into growing it, it can return a significant profit. Synthetic steviol glycosides will soon be on the market, and if they come to dominate the market, the countries that grow stevia will have no market to sell to, with all benefits going to large companies in the North.

© Getty Images

Developments since the report was published

The situation has developed since the publication of Public Eye's "The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia". Public Eye has opened discussions with companies that sell products sweetened with steviol glycosides on the subject of negotiations with the Guarani. A year later, our action started to pay off: several companies agreed to enter into negotiations on a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits with the Guarani people (see box below).

The Guarani organising

In August 2016, more than a hundred representatives of Guarani communities held a meeting in Paraguay in 2016, to demand a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of "their" stevia. This type of meeting hadn't happened for several years. The Pai Tavytera and the Kaiowa have numerous family links, but since they are separated by a national border, they don't normally meet for joint political actions.

  • © Luis Vera
    The Guarani meet in north-east Paraguay, close to the Brazilian border.
  • © Luis Vera
    The Guarani people are currently circled by enormous soya and sugar cane plantations.
  • © Luis Vera
    The Guarani meeting in the town on the Jasuka Venda sacred site is an exceptional event.
  • © Luis Vera
    More than a hundred leaders and representatives of Pai Tavytera and Kaiowa are taking part in this exceptinal assembly.
  • © Luis Vera
    The Guarani are determined that their rights as owners of the traditional knowledge associated with stevia must be respected.
  • © Luis Vera
    The best possible compensation for the Guarani would be the recovery of part of their ancestral lands.
  • © Luis Vera
  • © Luis Vera
    At the end of the meeting, the Guarani signed a common declaration.

The Guarani are determined that their rights as owners of the traditional knowledge associated with stevia must be respected. They are open to the proposal of negotiating an agreement to share benefits with companies. They hope to at least receive compensation. Access to their lands is the most important aspect for them. The hope is that the income from an eventual agreement would allow them to recover part of their ancestral land and reconstitute the land where stevia grew historically.

To conclude the meeting, a shared declaration was adopted to demand "the respect of [their] territory, [their] world view, [their] culture and [their] sovereignty" and, more specifically, to demand a fair and equitable share of the benefits arising from the use of their knowledge associated with stevia:

"We denounce the multinational corporations that profit from our knowledge and our biodiversity through using and selling our 'ka’a he’ê' (Stevia rebaudiana), without us, its true owners, the Pai Tavytera and the Kaiowa, having been consulted."

Towards an agreement with the companies

In November 2016, Public Eye publishes a follow-up report "Stevia: the path to a benefit sharing agreement" that discusses the initial results from our discussions with companies, the demands made by the Guarani, and the latest legal developments since the publication of the original report in 2015.

In June 2017, a petition signed by over 260,000 people was presented to Coca-Cola to demand the company negotiate a fair and equitable benefit-sharing agreement with the Guarani people.

Dialogue with companies

Are companies prepared to negotiate a benefit-sharing agreement? In order to find out, Public Eye contacted the largest producers and users of stevia-derived sweetners, to investigate their thoughts on the possibility of sharing benefits with the Guarani. Initial results have been encouraging: although some of the companies we approached refused to make any comment, several others are willing to enter negotiations with a view to a fair and equitable sharing of benefits with the Guarani.

Faced with our questions, some companies, such as Unilever or Ricola, simply haven't responded. Others, such as Coca Cola or PepsiCo replied... to say that they wouldn't reply. But several companies, including Swiss ones, agreed to enter into negotiations on a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits with the Guarani people.

  • The company Evolva – which works in partnership with Cargill to produce steviol glycosides from synthetic biology – would be “willing to engage in discussions regarding benefit sharing with the Guarani as per the spirit of the Convention on Biological Diversity”.
  • Nestlé (Switzerland) fully supports the principle of fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources as described in the Convention on Biological Diversity and is willing to engage, together with other industries, in discussions regarding benefit sharing with the Guarani.
  • Swiss supermarktet Migros stressed its support for the principles of benefit sharing with Indigenous Peoples and the countries of origin, and added that it would be ready to discuss it directly with it suppliers in the case of steviol glycosides.
  • In Switzerland again, Goba (soft drinks), indicated its willingness to cooperate in implementing the idea of benefit sharing with the Guarani. Similarly, Bernrain (chocolate) expressed its support for benefit sharing and its willingness to work with suppliers that source their raw material from the countries of origin and share benefits with the Guarani.