Sri Lanka: Biopirates patent traditional wisdom

by GRAIN | 10 Oct 1998
TITLE: Sri Lanka: Biopirates patent traditional wisdom PUBLICATION: IPS news wires DATE: 8 October 1998 SOURCE: Inter Press Service URL:


COLOMBO, (Oct. 8) IPS - Long before the arrival of Western drugs, indigenous doctors pounded and prepared medicine from wild plants and flowers gathered from Sri Lanka's thick tropical forests to treat a variety of illnesses.

The ancient formulations of the "ayurveda" system of medicine were zealously guarded and passed on from one generation to the next in families that could trace back their ancestry for many centuries.

In the northcentral town of Polonnaruwa an indigenous doctor treats patients with heart problems who would otherwise require bypass surgery for a fraction of the cost of surgery which is at least $4,500 in hospitals in the country.

Now giant global pharmaceutical drug companies, aware of the therapeutical qualities of medicinal plants, are virtually stealing this ancient wisdom by extracting chemicals from local plants and patenting it abroad, particularly in the United States.

Upali Pilapitiya, director of the Bandaranaike Memorial Ayurveda Research Institute, says that the tremendous interest in the West about natural Ayurvedic remedies, has led to a growing interest in Asia's indigenous plant life.

Studies have revealed that more than 40 percent of western pharmaceutical products contain Asian plant extracts but these Asian countries including Sri Lanka have earned very little in return.

Export of medicinal plants or their extracts is banned in Sri Lanka. However bio-piracy is flourishing, quite often with the assistance of Sri Lankans who have no qualms of selling indigenous knowledge and innovation. Last month, a university professor and another wealthy Sri Lankan, whose wife is a social activist, were detained for bio-piracy by security personnel.

"Loopholes in existing laws and other legal snags are robbing the country of millions of dollars that is rightfully ours," asserts Sirimal Premakumara, a scientist at the Ceylon Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research.

He said that since the country does not have the hi-tech scientific equipment to analyze chemical components of indigenous plants or the capacity to pay the international patent fee of $60,000, wealthy countries are taking advantage.

For instance Salacil Reticulata, the scientific name for the loc ally grown Kothalahimbutu plant, has been recognized abroad for its ability to control diabetes. Ayurveda physicians in Sri Lanka have always advised patients to drink water left overnight in a hand-carved Kothalahimbutu mug or jug, whose production has become a cottage industry in the island.

Newspapers here report that a Japanese drug company patented a product based on this herb through the American Chemical Society last year.

Many other patents, like from the plant Weniwalgeta -- used effectively as a herbal remedy for fever, coughs and colds -- have been registered by Japanese, European and U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardene says, "although the law requires that a patent can be obtained only if it is an economically valuable invention created through a methodology, most multinationals have somehow obtained patents for products used in our country for thousands of years."

Scientists say that the normal ruse adopted by drug transnationals is to befriend an indigenous doctor, learn the curative properties of plants and sometimes offer him a trip abroad. The process of extraction of the chemical and export of the product which is often in the form of a powder, chemical solvent or the bark of trees, follows.

The two recent cases of biopiracy last month involving a university botanist and a wealthy Sri Lankan got wide publicity and led to a sudden interest in the issue by environmentalists and scientists here.

The botanist was intercepted by customs at Colombo airport trying to smuggle some plant extracts in his suitcase. In the same month, customs officials discovered a container load of Kothalahimbutu -- 1,512 cups weighing some 4 tons -- being shipped to Japan through a firm owned by the wealthy Sri Lankan.

Gunawardene feels that the laws should be strengthened to prevent the smuggling of Sri Lanka's indigenous plants and ayurvedic knowledge. Normally, product patents are given only if they fulfill the criteria of being new, specify the process and must necessarily have commercial value. If there are discrepancies in this process, the patent can be contested in court.

Like in the case of the U.S patent for turmeric which was successfully challenged by India on the grounds that its medicinal properties are well known since ancient times.

However, because India has no worthwhile law to protect its rich biodiversity or intellectual property rights another U.S company earlier this year took out patents on long-grain basmati rice grown for centuries by farmers in India and Pakistan.

Developing countries, rich in indigenous resources, need to tighten biodiversity laws to stop the usurpation of the resources and knowledge of its people, Sri Lankan scientists say.

Copyright © 1998, Inter Press Service

Author: GRAIN
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