"Biodiversity treaty is misleading the Third World"

  • 29/09/1995

Your institute has been trying to revive the traditional medicines in India. What have been the specific steps taken to popularise ethnomedicine? Have they been successful?
Today, there's a revival of interest in traditional medicines and herbal therapy the world over. An overgrowing number of scientists are turning to nature, as they fail to find remedies to common problems from within modern science. There is a widespread belief now that traditional practices can fruitfully contribute towards the development of modern science.

We, at the tbgri, have designed a herbal health kit, with a view to making available quick, cheap and non-toxic remedies for common ailments, such as cough, cold, fever, headache, diarrhoea, stomach ache, cuts and minor wounds. The kit will have 15 new herbal formulations in the shape of tablets, capsules, ointments and pouches. We have also developed 3 herbal drug formulations, in which one of the plants used can be sourced from the Kani tribals who live in the Travancore area of the Western Ghats. What are the key plants that have been used in the herbal health kit? I wouldn't want to divulge the names of the plants at this stage, but everything in the kit is drawn from the classical Indian system of medicine.

Will this kit also be marketed outside India?
As a research institute, tbgri will not join any commercial venture. However, several pharmaceutical firms in the country have approached us for the manufacturing rights of the herbal kit, and negotiations are on with some of them. Some firms have already expressed their desire to market the kit in Japan, Sri Lanka, Germany and other foreign countries.

You just mentioned about 1 drug developed from a tribal source. It is interesting, because the tribals are said to be secretive about their knowledge. How did you get to know about this herb?
In December 1987, a team of our scientists, working in the post-graduate-cum-research centre in Thiruvananthapuram, had been trekking through the high tropical mountain forests of the Agasthyar Hills, where they met the members of the scattered Kani community. They were amazed by the fact that the backbreaking climb hardly tired out the Kani guides, who continuously munched on a small blackish fruit. Normally secretive about their plants, the Kanis, however, told the scientists on this occasion about these unripe fruits of Arogyappacha, which they eat fresh to remain healthy and agile. The fruit tasted like almonds, and the scientists found that it releases a sudden surge of energy. The Kani men said that this, and many such other plants are part of their sacred knowledge system.

Though the plantl, Trichopus zeylanicus, had been known to botanists earlier, its medicinal value was recorded for the first time in 1987. It was unknown even to modern Ayurvedic practitioners.

One such a plant product is discovered, what does it take to get it to the market for popular use?
Gathering tribal knowledge is a tedious task. Communication with the tribals is the first barrier. Often, the tribal dialect differs from the local one. Secondly, the tribals are reluctant to communicate with the researcher. He has to spend months with them. Once the information is obtained, the researcher has to confirm the same from other sources. Often, the same plant may be used to treat different diseases in different localities. The multiple use of a single plant in different localities by the same tribals further complicates the researcher's task. Then, the same plant may have different names in different localities. All this data are collected and analysed by the researcher to arrive at useful and valid conclusions. You are said to be a protagonist for the patent rights of tribals. In this case, have you worked out any method of ensuring the rights of the Kanis?
The current practise in all the national laboratories under the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (csir) is to share the royalty between the institute and the researchers at the ratio of 6:4. We, at the tbgri, have decided that any royalty arising out of a tribal lead is to be shared at the ratio of 5:2.5:2.5, between the institute, the researchers and the tribals respectively. The tribals' share will be administered by appropriate government agencies for the general welfare of their communities.

While Chinese traditional medicine has been accepted internationally, Indian ethnomedicine has not been able to gain acceptance in its own country. Why has China fared better than India?
The Chinese decided to practise 2 streams of medicine and made their traditional system predominant. Their doctors at the grassroots level are none other than the tribal vaidyas (medicos). There, the practitioners of traditional and modern systems enjoy the same status. At the primary health care level in China today, 80 per cent of the people still depend upon traditional prescriptions.

Unfortunately in India, soon after Independence, we decided to have a single system of medicine: the modern medicine. This was our biggest mistake. This policy marginalised the traditional streams of medicine. We need to correct this mistake. Now, our only recourse is to document whatever we can of this system and develop a database of information.

Can the 2 streams of medicine be integrated, so as to make it convenient for the people to have the best of both?
The tribal taxonomy of plants is different from its counterpart in modern science. We are trying to understand how we can scientifically define tribal taxonomy, so that we can learn from it. This will help in integrating it with modern medicine.

The dangerous trend these days is that our medicinal plants are being patented by foreign companies. How do you think you can prevent this traditional knowledge from being patented by large multinational corporations?
This is precisely what we are afraid of. Since the last 20 years, we have documented these knowledge systems but have not published the reports, fearing that they will be misused. If we publish information on the use of a plant for a particular disease, the large corporations can break its dna code and develop replicas. We do not have the technology to isolate and patent such information.

Even the Biodversity Convention signed in ***states that the people have the right to their biodiversity, and can stake a claim to the benefits derived from it. But the catch is that you have to be knowledgeable and informed about your biodiversity, meaning thereby, that knowing the name of a plant or a micro-organism is not enough. You must know what it contains. You have to be aware of the chemical profile and dna fingerprinting of your medicinal plants.

After the signing of the Biodiversity Convention, Australia has banned any plant or micro-organism from being taken out of the country before they themselves have bioprospected it. To protect the rights of our tribals, we are also documenting their knowledge systems and we will not publish these till we get our plants patented.

In the post-gatt era, how can India protect its interests?
After gatt, India is really in a dangerous situation. Unless we urgently complete our bioprospecting, we will not be able to protect our interests. India can thus be reduced to the status of a mere supplier of biological raw materials in the next century.

In India, we don't have proper knowledge about our genetic resources. It is known that one tea-spoon full of soil from a tropical region may contain as many 3 million micro-organisms. Today, in a biotechnology centre of a developed country, scientists can recreate an entire plant from the respective dna which is found anywhere in a living plantbody. This technology is not available with the Third World countries. Hence, the so called sovereign rights ensured by the Biodiversity Treaty will bear no meaning. The treaty is to mislead the Third World. What is most unfortunate is that our politicians do not understand the gravity of this problem.

How can we take up this challenge?
The situation is serious. The developed countries are years ahead of India in biotechnology. They are already busy isolating the useful dnas. Once isolated, a dna can be replicated and transferred to bacteria. The bacteria will then will turn out the particular compound. Today, 60 per cent of the world's insulin requirements is produced in a single biotechnology lab in Copenhagen, which is spread over hardly half-an-acre of land.

We need to make a consolidated effort in building up our inventories and have a dna library of the endemic and endangered species, including the entire range of micro-organisms, available in our country. That will give us an equity status in the world. Otherwise, we will be forced to labour under another new regime of slavery, and the instrument of this fresh enslavement of our country will be biotechnology.