An Indian village bucks GATT over control of genetic resources

A village in the Southern Indian state of Kerala has created history by declaring its absolute ownership over all the genetic materials currently within its jurisdiction, thus checking corporate pirates from the West who are attempting to steal and monopolise such material through patents.

by Claude Alvares

A SMALL village in Kerala (a southern state of India) has initiated a highly unusual move to place all its genetic material out of the bounds of prospecting MNCs and biogene pirates from Western economies.

At a widely reported public ceremony held in April this year, Pattuvam village - located in the Kannur District of northern Kerala - issued a declaration placing controls over identified genetic resources available and utilised within the jurisdiction of the village.

The declaration was made after a detailed register had been prepared by its village youth of practically every species and crop cultivar growing within the village's boundaries.

In a symbolic and intensely moving ceremony held on 9 April, the register was handed over by an ancient farmer to a young child of the village who in turn handed it over to Ms Kamalakshi, the village sarpanch (village head), for safeguarding and protection in the interests of the community and future generations.

Present at the symbolic handing- over ceremony were environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva and leading Ethiopian genetic material expert and ex-Director of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, Dr Melaku Worede.

In line with the declaration, the group of active villagers that had initiated the move to protect the village gene pools, also set up a Forum for the Protection of People's Biodiversity (Samrakshana Samiti). The Samiti - together with the village Panchayat (which is the grassroots statutory authority) - would henceforth have to be consulted by any person or company who seeks access to the register and the genetic material it lists.

A highlight of the declaration ceremony on 9 April was the organisation of a Jaivadarshanam (exhibition of living things) comprising the plants of the entire village. The exhibition gave the villagers of Pattuvam an inkling for the first time of what they owned and what they and their ancestors have kept alive and conserved for centuries.

The village gathering also honoured several farmers who had protected traditional varieites by continuing to cultivate them in the face of inducements made by government agencies.

The initiative for the declaration and registry seems to have crystallised in 1995 with a group of active young people from Pattuvam village who had moved out of Partisan politics due to disillusionment with party policies. The group, which calls itself the Gramavedi (Village Forum), wished to begin documenting the history of the village as a prelude to working for its sustainable development.

In October 1995, the Gramavedi was able to access Navdanya - a biodiversity project initiated by Dr Vandana Shiva - which attempts to train and empower village communities with necessary techniques to survey and record their genetic resources in registers. Discussions with Navdanya staff followed. These focused on issues relating to both GATT and the conservation of biodiversity. They were followed by a large number of village-level biodiversity workshops to which experts were invited.

For instance, the Gramavedi conducted a workshop where Dr Venkat, a permaculture expert from Hyderabad, demonstrated sustainable farming techniques which could also promote conservation of bioresources. Other workshops concentrated on educating village people to recognise the rich folk traditions and biodiversity of the village which were being rapidly forgotten.


Once the decision to organise the biodiversity register was made, there was initially some anxiety since the Gramavedi was not sure how to go about doing it. It had two options. It could hire experts to do the mapping which could take a week and be speedily accomplished. Such documentation of biodiversity is being done now as a routine by government and non-government organisations.

However, the Gramavedi realised this option would leave the people still ignorant of not just the details of the genetic material available but of the wider issues raised by the GATT Treaty and the WTO. It would also convert the documentation into an effective tool for biopiracy.

The model the Gramavedi eventually settled for was to get the villagers themselves - especially the youth - to do the survey of the genetic material and understand its features. Once this option was decided on, a massive investigation programme was initiated which included tapping the information available with vaidyas, old craftsmen and farmers, fishermen and folk artists.

In surveying the plants available within the village, the village surveyors found that conventional academic botanists were of little use. The Gramavedi was however fortunate to procure the services of an amateur botanist, Unnikrishnan. A former school teacher from a town near by, Unnikrishnan had been bitten by the plant bug fairly early in life and had researched the plants in most of the sacred groves of Kerala and become an outstanding authority on the subject. He willingly agreed to guide the search.

Training camps were held to teach people how to recognise birds and even butterflies, in addition to plants. Soon everyone in Pattuvam was talking of the register under preparation.

The survey of the village germplasm established the existence of 26 traditional varieities of rice still being cultivated in such a small region. The surveyors found that the varieties had been maintained by the farmers on their own for the sake of conserving their seeds. Certain medicinal varieties of rice are still being routinely cultivated because in the absence of cultivation, their seeds deteriorate. The survey in fact found that the habit of seed conservation has been deeply ingrained in people by tradition. However, the strength of this tradition was now eroding unless steps were taken to reverse the situation.

Once the survey was completed, the biodiversity register was prepared using only local names and in Malayalam (language of Kerala state). Some rare plants are also listed in the register, but their physical location in the village has been left unspecified. Wherever necessary, the more difficult name - rather than the popular one - has been used to confound outsiders.

A hundred varieties of rice

The survey concluded that cultural forms establish an ever greater richness of biodiversity. For instance, one of the village folk songs still sung mentions the existence of more than 100 varieties of rice. These varieties alas are to be found now only in the song and no longer in the fields.

In addition to the rice cultivars, the survey located a total of 366 species of plants including trees, 93 species of birds, 30 fish varieties (fresh water and saline) including crabs, molluscs, tortoises etc. The register records 32 species of mangroves including one not found in the government list and 14 wild mammals.

In December 1996 the Gramavedi met and assessed the work done. It came to the conclusion that the register was quite substantial and there were items of considerable economic value to justify a declaration of ownership. A declaration had also become urgent in the light of several patents reportedly filed in the US on everyday items used in India like turmeric and neem.

Lawyers are still examining the legal implications of what the villagers of Pattuvam have done in terms of the GATT and WTO arrangements under which the global economy is now sought to be organised.

One opinion is that the declaration, while valid, is bound to conflict with the implementation of patent laws in so far as no patents will be permissible or recognised on any of the genetic resources listed in the register since these have been declared already as commonly owned. As Shiva has observed: 'The declaration gives recognition to community rights to the intellectual and biological commons and provides a new interpretation to the sui generis option of TRIPs.

The legal basis of the Pattuvam action is the 73rd constitutional amendment to the Indian Constitution which has mandated radical decentralisation of powers to village-level institutions like the panchayat and village bodies like the gram sabha (village assembly). As per the scheme of the constitutional amendment, the village panchayat is liable for the planned development of the village and in this context has been given wide-ranging powers to decide important issues regarding development of resources in the village.

Using this law, for example, the village of Kerim in the state of Goa, declined to grant the US multinational Du Pont permission to set up a Nylon 6,6 factory in its jurisdiction even though the state government had acquired hundreds of acres of land for the project and the central government had issued other clearances. Du Pont was then forced to migrate to another state.

The Samrakshana Samiti is very clear about its objectives. It is opposed to any assertion of property rights over living resources and the patenting of genetic material. It has asserted its claim publicly through the declaration solely to prevent privatisation of these resources. The genetic resources will be made accessible to other village communities but no person will be allowed monopoly for purposes of patenting.

The Gramavedi is shortly expected to make a presentation of its work before the People's Biodiversity Commission headed by Justice Krishna Iyer.

Claude Alvares is a prominent Indian social scientist and journalist. He writes regularly for magazines and newspapers in India and other countries. (TWR 84 - August 1997)