"India has lost much to the West"

Lynn Crisanta R Panganiban is a physician in the department of pharmacology at the University of Philippines, Manila. A toxicologist and an active member of the Pesticide Action Network, she attended the International Workshop on Benefit Sharing and Local Communities organised by the Centre for Science and Environment and spoke to Meera Iyer about the efforts undertaken by her country to safeguard traditional medicine

Published: Tuesday 15 October 1996

On her interest in biodiversity:
My involvement with biodiversity stems from my concern for the plant and animal species that are being affected by the use of pesticides, and persistent organic compounds in particular. Working with Pesticide Action Network (pan) has made me realise the importance of feeling the pulse of the people.

On the laws related to biodiversity:
A number of laws have already been passed in response to the loss of biodiversity. The Philippines is a vast repository of biodiversity and is proud of its natural resources. The most important law is the Executive Order 247 (1995) which lays down the guidelines for bioprospecting and conducting research in the Philippines. Essentially, Order 247 has set up an inter-agency committee which comprises of representatives from all the concerned government bodies like the department of environment and natural resources, department of health and department of culture. And what is most important is that ngo s are also a part of this committee.

In addition, a screening committee studies all proposals for research on natural resources before passing it on to the inter-agency committee for deliberation. The law also provides for a public notification so that everybody is informed about the commencement of so-and-so research project in a certain area. The ngo s of the area are responsible for the monitoring and implementation of the order in that region. In case of a violation, it is they who will bring it to the notice of the authorities.

On efforts towards benefit sharing:
As far as benefit sharing is concerned, strategies have not yet been laid out. But the law still safeguards the knowledge of the people. When commercial research agreements are signed, a member of the local academic community has to be a part of the research team.

But in my opinion, there are different levels of benefit sharing. There may be benefit sharing at the national level but what remains to be seen is how much trickles down to the level of the indigenous or local communities. In fact, it is not really a question of the percentage one receives but of the extent to which the knowledge in question proves useful.

Till date, we have dealt more with the issue of bioprospecting. The sharing of the resulting benefits has not yet been worked out in clear terms. Ideally, the framework for this should be drawn up in consultation with the people because they may have a better idea of how best to share the benefits.

On how, to a certain extent, the law has already empowered local communities:
Our department conducts a lot of research on herbs and other medicinal plants. But while doing so we have to take into consideration the consent of the community. We cannot simply go to a village and say that we are there for a study. The law makes that impossible. A group of foreign researchers recently went to a community in the southern Philippines and announced their decision to conduct research on medicinal plants and sought information from them. But the community they approached was aware of the provisions of Order 247 and knew that they should not allow researchers into the community and provide them access to resources. We already have a number of organised communities in the Philippines which can conduct their own research. They can even decide the terms of participation and the benefits to be received for themselves. Information about the law has filtered down to the level of the community mainly through the efforts of ngo s.

On the status of traditional knowledge in the Philippines:
Western science has made major inroads into the Philippines as well. As a result of this people have, unfortunately, tended to look at traditional systems of medicine as a poorer substitute. I try to make my own students view traditional medicine as an alternative. As a doctor, I will not recommend traditional medicine simply because my patients cannot afford Western medicines. I encourage such remedies because of their potential to cure my patient. However, in academic circles, indigenous medicine is regarded as the second-best alternative, something that could be 'tried' if other options cannot be afforded. But it is good that the government recognises the value of traditional knowledge. There are a number of institutions that are interested in indigenous remedies and a number of drugs prepared from local medicines are available for the treatment of various ailments.

On the demand for transparency in research so as to prevent academicians from transferring information to commercial establishments:
There is a very thin line dividing commercial and academic research. There still remains a lot to be done in order to tighten up laws related to the latter. Laws related to commercial research agreements are stricter but the point is, how much of the commercial research being done could be traced back to academic research.

What we in the Philippines are cautious about right now is that a number of foreign companies consult academicians and researchers and offer them incentives to continue their research on plants. This is piracy. But researchers, particularly those who deal with traditional healers, are very committed people. They cannot be easily swayed by such inducements.

On whether there are any regional fora working for the conservation of biodiversity:
The Association of South East Asian Nations countries meet regularly on this issue and there have been concerted efforts to come up with a regional perspective on it.

On the role India could play:
Being a large country with so many resources in hand -- be they natural or human resources -- India could play a leading role. But it is sad that it has already lost so much of its knowledge and resources to the West. If this continues, you may ultimately end up losing everything. There is much at stake but there is little being done about it. India's vast scientific humanpower seems to be working in ivory towers, out of touch with the people. It is not so in our country where every scientist feels that people should benefit from what they are doing. There is more contact between scientists and local people there.

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