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TRIBE ACCUSES BIOLOGISTS
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, (Aug. 5) PANOS/IPS - When the Director of the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), based in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala state, won the prestigious United Nations Borlaug Award this year, he was praised for going by the book in harnessing plants for medicinal use. But a group of tribals from the state is not so sure. They say the institute, a Kerala government body, is cheating them of profits made from the industrial production of a medicinal plant grown by the tribe. And biodiversity campaigners say the U.N. got it wrong for commending the institute for its adherence to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which seeks to ensure that profits from the commercial use of the world's biological wealth is shared equitably, including by those who have nurtured and developed knowledge about plants for centuries.
The row centers around what TBGRI calls its "accidental discovery" of a plant with supposedly extraordinary therapeutic properties in the Western Ghats, a hilly, biologically-rich part of southwestern India. Known as Arogyappacha (biological name: Trichopus Zeylanicus sub sp. Travancoricus Burkill ex Narayanan), the plant has been grown and used for generations by members of an impoverished local tribe called Kani. The institute's version of the story runs like this: a team of Indian ethno-biologists led by TBGRI director and Borlaug-winner Palupu Pushpangadan was trekking through the Western Ghats to survey the tribe in December 1987 when the scientists complained of tiredness. But two Kani guides to the expedition, who had been munching some "small blackish fruits," were found to be energetic and agile.
The curious scientists followed suit and "felt a sudden flush of energy and strength." For seven years after that, the institute subjected the plant to a battery of scientific tests before coming up with a health tonic called Jeevani -- a cocktail of four herbs, in which the major ingredient is Arogyappacha. "Jeevani has been standardized, and all pharmacological details are documented. It is a safe anti-stress, anti-fatigue, appetite-promoting and restorative herbal tonic for people of all ages. Unlike the Korean Ginseng, it is devoid of traces of steroid or any other addictive substance," says TBGRI scientist T.G. Vinod Kumar.
In 1994, TBGRI transferred the process-technology of Jeevani for commercial production to the Coimbatore Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (CAP), a market leader in indigenous Ayurvedic drugs, for a period of seven years. According to CAP's chief of product development, G.G. Gangadharan, the terms of the transfer oblige TBGRI to share with Kanis half of the know-how fees of Rs. one million (about $25,000) and half the two per cent royalty on future sales of the medicine. TBGRI worked out an ambitious plan to commercially cultivate Arogyappacha in some 2,000 acres of land. According to their calculations, an acre should yield an income of about Rs.100,000 ($2,500) over two years. The leaves can be plucked three times a year.T
he institute says the money will go to 2,500 Kani families who are eventually to cultivate and supply the plants to CAP at a price agreed with TBGRI. "Our decision to share the benefit is a unique attempt to recognize the Intellectual Property Rights of tribal," said Dr Rajasekharan, head of TBGRI's Ethno-medicine Department. But the Kanis tell a different story. "There are about 300 people working with TBGRI, but no tribal has been appointed," says Shaji Kani of Vithura village. Appukuttan Kani, the elected chief of the village local government, says, "The Botanical Garden uses our people to collect plants and herbs. They are given only daily wages of Rs.30 (less than $1), and never compensated for the value of the plants and herbs. Moreover, we do not know what they do with the plants and herbs," he adds.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the wrangle has thrown up important questions on commercial exploitation of plants -- just when biodiversity-rich developing countries are being increasingly eyed by Western drug companies as a cheap source of raw material. The intellectual property rights of products and processes is the key instrument by which Western multinational companies exploit the resources and economies of developing countries. As the Kanis' complaints show, this so-called "biopiracy" can happen within developing nations too. TBGRI scientist Rajasekharan says the Kani tribe "never used Arogyappacha as a medicine. And Arogyappacha is only one of the ingredients of Jeevani."
But biodiversity campaigner Suman Sahay feels that TBGRI, by taking out a patent for Jeevani, has "effectively challenged the principle of Common Heritage of mankind, which considers all genetic resources the property of everybody, with no particular ownership." The story raises a further question: did TBGRI observe a critical component of CBD -- seeking Prior Informed Consent (of the Kanis in this case) -- before acquiring the knowledge base and using it for commercial production? Article 15 of CBD codifies, "Access to genetic resources shall be subject to prior informed consent of the Contracting Party providing such resources, unless otherwise determined by that Party... Each Contracting Party shall endeavour to develop and carry out scientific research based on genetic resources provided by other Contracting Parties with the full participation of... such Contracting Parties."
In an interview after receiving the Borlaug award, Pushpangadan explained the rationale of the TBGRI model, "Biological diversity is the sovereign right of a nation. It cannot be acquired without the prior informed consent of those who possess the knowledge." Whether this right should also extend to communities within nations is currently a hotly-debated issue. Campaigners say there is an urgent need for developing countries to enact patent laws that would recognize the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities. Many hold that the Kanis are eminently suitable candidates to be accorded just such a right. They have a rich tradition of tribal medicine practitioners who, in 1996, formed into an Adivasi (Tribal) Traditional Medical Practitioners' Co-operative Society.
But these practitioners have not been involved in the evolution of the Arogyappacha tonic, according to the tribal. However, the tribal have the support of a State-wide body of tribal medical practitioners under the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Its director S. Vishwanathan Nair, says, "The intellectual property rights or economic benefits are not reaching the tribal. It is channelled through private monopoly." To top it off, the Kanis complain, TBGRI has not parted with any of the cash it has been given by CAP. Instead, it has set up a Kani Tribal Trust of its own, with the two guides as its president and secretary, to distribute the amount.
"The Trust should be exclusively managed by the Kanis and it should give primacy to traditional tribal medical practitioners," Appukuttan Kani suggests. (7. 08. 98)
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