The Kani learning
How benefit-sharing between a research institute and the Kani tribe went awry
Kuttimathan Kani’s tiny, unfinished house has a few laminated photos hung on one of its walls. In those pictures, he is standing next to a dignitary. The photos were taken in Johannesburg during the 2002 Earth Summit, says the Kani tribesman. “There, I was asked to welcome the prime minister of Canada,” adds Kuttimathan.
“What did you say?”
“Three sentences: I’m Kuttimathan Kani. Coming from India. With great respect, I welcome you, sir.”
A mere “I’m from India” is insufficient to describe Kuttimathan’s realities. He lives in a village, Chonampara, in the reserved forests of Agasthya Hills, a part of the southern Western Ghats in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district. Kuttimathan, 49, belongs to one of the poorest tribal communities.
The tribe has a population of 25,000 and lives in scattered settlements.
The forests of Agasthya Hills are a treasure trove of medicinal plants and the Kanis have a rich traditional knowledge of these resources. They make a living by growing millets, arecanut and rubber, and collect honey and python fat, a remedy for rheumatic pain. Kuttimathan was taken to the summit by P Pushpangadan, former director of Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) in Thiruvananthapuram. It is an autonomous institute set up by the Kerala government to develop herbal drugs. Pushapangadan was to receive the UN Equator Initiative Award. The award was for a “unique, innovative, successful and sustainable model” of access-benefit-sharing he and his TBGRI team developed with the help of the Kanis. Kuttimathan was the secretary of an all-Kani trust that was formed as part of the benefit-sharing.
What led to this benefit-sharing was a drug that could fight fatigue and stress, enhance immunity and protect the liver. TBGRI had developed Jeevani in 1995 after eight years of research. TBGRI shared half of the returns from selling Jeevani with the Kani trust. This was indeed a positive step, considering there was no legislation at that time on access to local resources and benefit-sharing. Despite being highlighted as successful and sustainable, the TBGRI-Kani model could benefit only a few community members.
Jeevani comes into being
The association between the Kanis and the TBGRI team started in 1987, six years before the Convention on Biological Diversity—which advocates fair and equitable sharing of benefits—came into force. A team led by Pushpangadan and S Rajasekharan, both from Regional Research Laboratory (RRL) in Jammu, visited Agasthya Hills to collect data on plants and tribal people. RRL is one of the laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Kuttimathan, Mallan Kani and Eachan Kani, all from Chonampara, were the team’s guides.
During the survey, Mallan and Kuttimathan told the two scientists that they used to eat fruits of a small plant to remain energetic while wandering in the forests on an empty stomach. The plant was arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus travancoricus), a perennial herb, described as wonder herb due to its rejuvenating qualities. Though the main species, Trichopus zeylanicus, is found in Sri Lanka and Thailand, only the Indian variety is proved to have medicinal qualities. In the subcontinent it grows in the wet forests of southern Western Ghats, falling in Thiruvananthapuram and Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district.
Once back at RRL, the team found out that all parts of arogyapacha had therapeutical qualities. “Since its fruit is rare, we validated all the parts of the plant,” recalls Pushpangadan. They found the leaves had the necessary pharmaceutical qualities. “The Kanis had neither used the fruit nor the leaves in their traditional medicines,” says Rajasekharan.
The research was shifted from RRL to TBGRI when Pushpangadan took charge as its director in 1990. In 1995, Jeevani was ready. It contained 13 to 15 per cent arogyapacha leaves, besides three other herbs. For manufacturing and marketing, TBGRI called tenders and shortlisted Arya Vaidya Pharmacy of Coimbatore.
The following year, TBGRI transferred the technology to develop Jeevani to the pharmacy against a licence fee of Rs 10 lakh and royalties of two per cent at ex-factory sale. TBGRI decided to share half of these returns with the Kanis. Since the community did not have a formal set-up to receive its share, the Kerala Kani Samudaya Kshema Trust was formed in 1997. Mallan was made its president and Kuttimathan the secretary. In 1999, TBGRI transferred Rs 5 lakh to the trust as fixed deposit. “The Rs 5 lakh deposited in the trust fund was the money we scientists decided to forego,” says Rajasekharan. Apart from this, the trust received Rs 1.5 lakh annually as royalty till 2008, Rs 1.5 lakh from Pushpangadan’s award ($30,000) and interests on the fixed deposit. Mallan and Kuttimathan got Rs 20,000 each from the trust fund for providing key information. Eachan Kani got Rs 10,000.
TBGRI had appointed Mallan and Kuttimathan consultants in 1993 for Rs 3,000 a month. But both were shown the door when Pushpangadan left TBGRI in 1999. “They told us they do not have money to pay us,” says Mallan. With the interest from the bank, the trust built a community hall and bought a jeep on loan but failed to repay. The bank recovered the debt from the deposit. Later, the vehicle was sold.
When track was lost
When the pharmacy started production in 1996, disputes over raw material and ownership of the resources emerged. As part of the benefit-sharing it was envisaged that the Kanis would collect and sell arogyapacha leaves to the pharmacy. But TBGRI had not taken the forest department into confidence. As per laws, the Kanis could collect only minor forest produce and arogyapacha was not one.
There is arogyapacha. A rare herb with extraordinary medicinal properties. There is the Kani tribe of Kerala. It has preserved the herb and the knowledge about its use. Enter scientists and the state government. They try to sell the herb and share the benefits with the Kanis in the first experiment of its kind in the world. The project flounders. And how. MAX MARTIN analyses a failure snatched from the jaws of success.