Sri Lanka bans export of high-value medicinal plant

 
By Feizal Samath
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

sri lanka has banned the export of a valuable medicinal plant, kothala himbutu or Salacia reticulate, widely used as a cure for diabetes in the country and also in Japan.

The ban order was issued on June 15, 2006 and restricts the export of kothala himbutu except in the case of dried leaves and medicinal preparations containing at least one other ingredient in addition to the extracts or parts of the salacia species.

"This has been a long battle that has finally reached fruition," said Jagath Gunawardene, an environment lawyer and activist, who has been the driving force against the export of Sri Lanka's valuable medicinal plants.

The plant is endemic to Lanka but is also available in India though the variety is less effective than the Lankan plant. It grows wild in the dry zone of the country and is used by village physicians or vedamathayas (Ayurvedic doctors) to treat diabetes.

The export of the plant had earlier been banned in 1998 when it was found that in spite of restrictions on the export of indigenous plants, Lankan custom officers had detected a consignment of two tonnes of kothala himbutu being exported to Japan. The conservator of forests was to use his discretion to allow exports based on certain conditions.

"We knew there were 30 patents obtained overseas with regard to this plant, of which 19 had been obtained by Japan," Gunawardene said. Only one patent belongs to a Lankan company that produces herbal remedies -- the Siddhalepa Group. This implies that when a patent is obtained for a product where the base is kothala himbutu, Lankans end up buying their own medicine from a foreign manufacturer.

Last year the call for tighter controls on exports came after seven tonnes of the plant were exported to Japan under some questionable circumstances by a company based in the north-west region. An inquiry is now on in connection with that shipment. The government finally relented in June this year and banned all forms of plant exports except in value added form.

Kothala himbutu is also used by the Japanese as a treatment against obesity. Not many Lankan villagers know the value of this wild plant. It could be obtained on the roadside off the northwest town of Puttalam for us $0.5 per kg and exported at around us $0.10 per kg. Some years back a small bottle of anti-diabetic tablets from Japan cost around us $5. "That must be much more now," said Gunawardene.

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