How To Sell A Wonder Herb

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.

Published: Sunday 15 November 1998

How To Sell A Wonder Herb

Can grow, cannot sell: Kanis t (Credit: Photographs: Amit Shanker)The miracle-makers
Scientists are only now finding out the Kanis' knowledge of herbal remedies.The most outstanding find so far is arogyapacha.

SMELL of burning bamboo. The short and wiry figure of Ayyappan Kani. The elderly man is busy mixing herbs with a strange extraction from a piece of burnt bamboo. With a beatific smile, he explains that it will treat a boil on a little girl's belly. The place is Chonanpara, a Kani tribal settlement in a reserved forest of Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram district. Ayyappan Kani is a practitioner of malamarunnu, the medicine of the mountain, given to the Kani tribe by the mythical sage Agastya.

About 40 km away in Njaranili village, townsfolk come to consult Eswaran Kani, a traditional tribal healer. The pious medic explains that people gave him the nickname 'Eswaran' (meaning god) after he successfully treated some patients sent back by the Medical College Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram.

The Kanis, numbering about 16,000, live in the lush tropical forests of the Western Ghats. According to Kani myths, their ancestors were exceptionally adept at shooting arrows. The ancient sage Agastya disarmed a Kani couple to prevent the birth of a martial race in his abode of peace and meditation. Instead, the couple were given a scroll on herbal remedies. And a boon to cure the sick with their chants. Kanis are now known for their sure-fire antidotes. The tribal knowledge of forest plants holds the key to several new discoveries and wonder drugs, a multi-billion-dollar business worldwide.

The Kani tribe's contribution from that treasure trove is arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus), a herb with tonic qualities. In Malayalam arogyapacha means 'health green'. Indeed. Its business potential is comparable to ginseng of Korea, says P Pushpangadan, director, Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), Thiruvananthapuram. Trained in Ayurveda and botanical research, Pushpangadan is a pushy seller of ideas. "In South Korea, a large share of the foreign exchange is earned from ginseng," he notes. With its anti-fatigue properties, arogyapacha is a potential global hit, he says. Arogyapacha is the quintessential wonder herb. It possibly has immune-enhancing and liver-protecting qualities, claim scientists of TBGRI.

Pushpangadan says he first came across the wonder herb in 1987, before the birth of TBGRI. During an arduous trek through the forests near the Agastya hills in Thiruvananthapuram, Pushpangadan and his colleague S Rajasekharan got a sudden "flush of energy and strength" after eating the seeds of arogyapacha given to them by two Kani guides.

After isolating the herb's rejuvenating properties, TBGRI scientists developed a traditional drug formula containing 15 per cent arogyapacha. They scientifically tested its toxicity and efficacy. "It took eight years of research," says S Rajasekharan, now an ethnobotanist at TBGRI (ethnobotany is the study of traditional knowledge and custom of a people relating to plants). "Starving rats ran around after consuming arogyapacha," narrates Ayyappan Kani about the tests.

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