Ethiopian berries help to battle mussels

A PLANT indigenous to Ethiopia and whose berries have been used traditionally as a shampoo and laundry soap could attract a huge market in the West. The berries of the plant, called endod (Phytolacca dodecandra), are deadly to zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), a snail species that carry the parasite that causes schistosomiasis, a tropical disease that claims 200,000 victims annually. The mussels also disrupt municipal water supplies by clogging water pipes.

Use of the berries could save millions of dollars now being spent on getting rid of the mussels, which pose a serious threat to fisheries as they blanket rocks in spawning areas and remove the algae on which the fish feed. Estimates are that by 2000, fisheries in the US will incur a loss of $2 billion because of zebra mussels.

That endod berries can kill snails has been known since 1964, when Ethiopian biologist Akilu Lemma found dead snails floating downstream from where people were washing their clothes with endod berries. But that they also kill zebra mussels was discovered only two years ago by Lemma, who was at the University of Toledo in USA to receive an honorary degree, and his colleague, biologist Harold Lee.

University of Toledo officials say they have applied for a US patent for the endod process and when it is sold commercially, Lemma and Lee will get a 50 per cent share of the royalties.
Intellectual property rights According to Rural Advancement Foundation International's publication, Communique (March 1993), the endod issue raises the much-debated question of intellectual property rights: Shouldn't the Ethiopian people, who have cultivated endod for centuries, receive a share of the royalties as the true proprietors of the plant? Surely -- but there is no guarantee they will get it.

On the one hand, the endod issue is a good example of how people's traditional knowledge can be used to solve modern problems; on the other hand, it highlights what Lemma describes as "the biases and reservations of some individuals and organisations in the developed world, who find it difficult to accept that any good science can come from our part of the world".

Lemma's criticism is not unfounded because he has been trying since 1964 to persuade the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop endod as a safe and inexpensive killer of zebra mussels. But WHO rejected his research on the ground the tests weren't rigorous enough. WHO presently recommends only the German-produced Bayluscide, which costs upto $30,000 per tonne, as a chemical to counter molluscs.

Despite WHO's indifference, however, Lemma and Legesse Wolde-Yohannes of Addis Ababa University, have persuaded farmers in Ethiopia, Zambia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe to grow endod extensively, both to battle molluscs and dirt. It was only after Lemma won the Right Livelihood Award in 1989 that WHO was persuaded to carry out later this year field trials of endod in Africa.