Tribals sow, MNCs reap

Published: Wednesday 31 January 1996

EIGHTY per cent of the world's population depends on indigenous knowledge to meet their medicinal needs, and at least half rely on indigenous knowledge and crops for food supplies, according to a new study done by the United Nations Development Programme.

The study concretises what has been generally voiced by voluntary organisations, that indigenous knowledge has also helped to fuel innovation and development in multi-billion dollar industries, ranging from agriculture and pharmaceuticals to chemicals, paper products, energy, and others.

The world market value of pharmaceuticals derived from plants used in traditional medicine exceeds US $43 billion, but less than 0.001 per cent of the profits has gone to indigenous people who led researchers to them.

According to ethnobiologists, the potential value of a new generation of soaps, oils, food colourings and cosmetics derived from tribal peoples is even greater than that of medicinal plants. However, the crucial role of indigenous knowledge gets sidelined when the fruits of these ventures are shared, ignoring the world's traditional and indigenous communities. The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR)-Onge controversy (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 16) over a herb that cures cerebral malaria is the latest incident highlighting the manner in which industry and government both knowingly rob the tribal communities of their rightful dues.

It is a reflection of the arrogance of the scientific community in assuming that their contribution to the knowledge system is superior to any other input. The innovation systems of tribal communities have been referred to as the co-operative or public system, while the other system is termed institutionalised or commercial system. The first is strong on macro -improvements applicable for local use while the second is good on micro-improvements applicable for wider use.

The attack on the co-operative innovation system is going to increase further in future because firstly, globally growing environmental awareness among rich consumers is pushing large companies to prospect the tropical world. Secondly, as industry looks for more food and non-food products from plants, it will increase the value of the institutional innovation system further marginalising the knowledge systems of the indigenous peoples.

Today, most serious scholars agree that to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity both the systems of innovation are necessary and need to be given equal importance. To do that, monetisation of the products and services directly arising out of the indigenous knowledge systems is the first step. The second challenge will be to ensure that this value is accepted in the commercial world; finally, this should be used to sustain and encourage community-based knowledge systems.

The current patent system, heavily biased towards large enterprises, is no solution. Between eight to nine per cent of British industry's research and development money goes to protect patents, while in the us the cost of patent litigation stands today at about one million dollar per litigation. Something unthinkable for indigenous communities.

Nor does the solution lie in bioprospecting schemes accepted by several scientists in the developing world. Since this is done without a framework of broader intergovernmental arrangement, the negotiation is strictly between two parties or countries. The value being assigned in this process to the indigenous knowledge is peanuts. For example, the us-based multinational Merck has paid Inbio of Costa Rica US $1.3 million to collect (bioprospect) 10,000 plant samples. Costa Rica is estimated to hold five per cent of the world's biodiversity. At this rate the total biodiversity of the South will sell out for us $20 million. Merck's sales in 1991 alone were worth us $8.6 billion, while Costa Rica's GNP was us $5.2 billion. Instead, developing countries like India need to first develop national legislations based on the Model Law on Folklore, adopted in 1985 by UNESCO and World Intellectual Property Organization, for what they called non-scientific innovations. It's three characteristics are that communities could be legally registered as innovators instead of individuals and represented by the State; community innovation could be ongoing or evolutionary; and communities could retain exclusive monopoly control so long as they continued to innovate.

The developing countries have to prepare supportive institutions' and legislations to facilitate Material Transfer Agreements between two parties, like the transfer done by the ICMR scientist. These agreements should treat genetic material as a commodity rather then as knowledge.

There should be a buyer-seller contract based on potential value; an up-front payment, plus additional payment once the product is commercialised; a continuous reporting mechanisms to the community; a transfer of technology agreement; an agreement on involvement of third parties in the deal later on; an agreement on the process to commercialise the product; an option for arbitration; and a review process.

This is an opportunity and a challenge to the environment ministry if it really wants to ensure equitable sharing of benefits between the communities, scientists, government and the entrepreneurs. Otherwise, the courts will face the increasing burden of issues like the ICMR/Onge squabble within the country, while internationally the country's wealth and indigenous knowledge will continue to be sold at throwaway prices.

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