November 2000


India’s southern coastal state of Kerala is developing new protective measures to shield its rare plant and animal species from ‘biopiracy’ by transnational pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies.

By Inter Press Service

Thiruvananthapuram, India: Transnational pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies eyeing India’s traditional medicinal and farm wealth will not find it easy to ‘steal’ these from the country’s southern coastal state of Kerala.

With a large area listed among the 18 biodiversity ‘hot spots’ in the world, the state is developing new protection measures to shield its rare plant and animal species from ‘biopiracy’.

Kerala’s mountain forests are home to some 2,800 species of flowering plants, of which 900 are used in India’s centuries-old medicinal system known as Ayurveda.

The rich variety of plant species found on the state’s farms and the coastal mangroves, also has commercial value.

State authorities have decided that the best way to prevent outsiders from staking a claim on this traditional knowledge is to assert the rights of the people of Kerala over it.

‘This would enable us to declare our full ownership of the bio-resource. Nobody can make a patent claim on these resources,’ say government officials in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

Concern for biodiversity protection has grown dramatically in the state following disclosures in the media of the export of medicinal plant materials to a Glaxo-Welcome laboratory in Singapore and to the Royal School of Pharmacy in Denmark, three years ago.

A premier government plant research institute was accused of clearing the exports after badly negotiated agreements.

The government is keen to avoid making the anti-biopiracy plan an official scheme and wants the people themselves to play the main role in ‘policing’ their flora and fauna. Elected village councils, known as ‘panchayat’, will have the main responsibility, say officials.

The way is being shown in Eranalukulam district, where the panchayat has prepared a register of the district’s plant and animal species. Some 8,600 trained volunteers had collected information on the various uses of the local flora and fauna in 86 villages of the district.

Similar biodiversity inventories have been prepared in six other districts by scientists of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI).

The Kerala government is also planning to issue an order setting the ground rules for biodiversity conservation and use. In the proposed order, local administration bodies are given a crucial role in biodiversity management.

‘The draft order has been extensively discussed by different agencies and we are just waiting for the enactment of the national biodiversity law,’ says Suresh Babu, a Principal Scientific Officer with the state’s Department of Science, Technology and Environment.

The Indian Parliament is expected to take up the proposed national biodiversity law during its forthcoming winter session. The bill has, however, come under fire from environmentalists and those championing the rights of local communities to traditional knowledge.

‘The bill does not sufficiently assert the (country’s) sovereignty over biodiversity and it is insensitive to the concerns of the indigenous people,’ said a spokesman of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Biodiversity Studies.

Experts say that beyond merely documenting and staking a claim to biodiversity, the state government will have to move towards ensuring its conservation and proper use.

‘We need to move from preparing biodiversity registers to developing biodiversity management plans,’ says M Balakrishnan of Kerala University, who has documented the biodiversity of a Kerala village.

The KFRI, with other agencies, is developing a biodiversity strategy and action plan for the entire state. ‘We are hoping to develop a feasible strategy and action plan for the management of the state’s valuable biodiversity,’ says senior KFRI scientist P S Easa.

‘With the new protection measures, I believe the Western patenting spree will come to an end,’ he adds.

The biodiversity register scheme is not the first attempt in the state to protect traditional knowledge from unfair commercial exploitation by outsiders.

In a widely hailed venture, another Kerala government-backed institution, the Tropical Botanical Garden Research Institute (TBGRI), has helped the state’s indigenous Kani community to make commercial use of its traditional medicinal knowledge.

For centuries, the tribal people had known of the invigorating properties of the local ‘trichopus’ shrub. The TBGRI helped develop this into a medical formula, which was sold to a leading traditional pharmaceutical company.

The revenue obtained from the sale of the patent right was shared equally with the Kani community. The company that bought the patent right for the medicine hired members of the community to collect the trichopus leaves.

‘The Kani-TBGRI model should be replicated in other cases involving the commercial use of traditional knowledge. This is what the (United Nations) Convention on Biological Diversity advocates,’ says environmental expert V R Prakasam, who has co-authored a study on the implications of the global treaty for Kerala. - Third World Network Features/IPS

The above article has been reprinted with permission from the Inter Press Service.