Sacred Groves & Biopiracy: Global Intellectual Robbery

By Sujit Chakraborty: There are thousands of medicinal plants and herbs that are native to India and their properties are known in our ancient Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK). This knowledge is worth trillions for our endangered tribes, but we have overlooked the need for a specific Ministry for TEK Affairs. Here’s the outline for a policy framework.

The Processor
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It was my first journey to North Sikkim for a government tourism development project way back in 2000. The taxi was speeding on the road leading to Lachung when on the left side of the road showed up a signboard: Kabi Lungtsok. The driver wanted to stop by a small hillock rising from the road. He told me that most drivers do not stop here but this is a very sacred spot.


We stopped and I found a local villager pluck some leave out of the side of the hillock. My driver said that he was picking up sacred herbs. We went up the stairs to find a few rocks garlanded with the khadas, the traditional Sikkimese way of greeting and honouring. 


Apparently, the stones were representative of the Bhutia and Lepcha community leaders who had worked out the first agreement between the two communities – an agreement that later became the bedrock of the formation of the Sikkimese kingdom under the Namgyal dynasty in 1642.


But more than that piece of history, what I felt while at Kabi Lungtsok was something eerie about the place, thick with shrubs of an unimaginable and totally perplexing variety. I felt a presence of something extra-real about the place. Besides, each of the gigantic, ancient pine trees looked an ecosystem in itself.


A year later, when I got down to some serious writing on the history of the former Himalayan kingdom, late Tashi Tobden, former chief secretary and a top scholar had told me that Ka’Vi Lungtsok was actually a sacred grove.


Given my background as a former editor of the globally acclaimed Down To Earth, the science and environment magazine, I already knew what a sacred grove was: a forest that has countless medicinal plants and herbs, which is protected by tradition and religious strictures. No one is allowed to enter with shoes on, or pick anything from the forest, smoke, drink or even – if nature’s call became irresistible – urinate within that forest.


Tashi Tobden’s mention of Ka’Vi as a sacred grove took me back to my second visit to Meghalaya on a major environmental research project. There, my friends said that I must visit a place called Mawphlang, which was a sacred grove many kilometres away from state capital Shillong.


When I visited that forest, walking barefoot, it felt as if the ground underneath was made of several layers of soft cushion. The ground was moist, almost slippery, and that was the first time I felt that eeriness of a sacred grove that was only repeated at Ka’Vi a few years later. The forest had a spirit, it almost seemed to me.


It shall be fair enough if my editor at The Processor gripes that she is not interested in a tourism story in a website dealing with policy and politics. Well, this is NOT a tourism story. Nor a superstitious, pseudo-religious one. This is all about a very serious, imminent threat that India and Indians collectively face in the medicinal space. and that threat is not an imagined one. So here are some examples.


The Pitcher Plant Tragedy

Meghalaya, which is where I first encountered Sacred Groves, had an endemic flora (that is, flora that has originated in that place and is either found nowhere else or have been grown from seeds stolen from its place of origin. Like the fabled rhododendron that was stolen by British botanist from North Sikkim and later planted all over Europe. But we shall come back to that plant later.


That special, endemic flora of Meghalaya is the Pitcher Plant, known in science as from the members of the Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae families. Interestingly, it is a carnivorous plant that feeds on insects. It is shaped like a small open pitcher (see pic) and attracts insects with aromatic nectar. 


Once the insect sits on the flower, it slips inside a slippery leaf-variation and the lid of the flower shuts down and the insect is devoured. But hey, yes, another valid objection from my editor: this is also not a biology class!


No, indeed not Ma’am. The thing is that the Pitcher Plat flower has medicinal properties. It is generally said that it has digestive, hypertension and other problem solving properties, but that is half the story.


This plant has tested anti-cancer and antioxidant properties and anti-cancer medicines have been made out of that. Try reading this:


That is from the National Health Library of the National Institute of Health in the US. 


You may ask, so what about anticancer properties. That is good for us. No, Sire, that is good for the US pharma companies. The Khasi tribal no longer have the rights to those medicines and India cannot make them. Test results have granted the US companies patent rights for commercial rights to a plant endemic to Meghalaya.


The Active Principle

You see, each plant or parts or produce of a plant has several medicinal properties, which is ingrained in what is called the “active principals” of that plant. 


The term “active principle” refers to the intrinsic chemical substance which induces pharmacological activity.


And one who extracts that active principle and proves a certain medicinal use gets the patent for it and anyone making any drug from that plant has to pay through their noses, or buy the medicines from the foreign pharmas at mindlessly high prices.


And this is what the US scientists did long ago: they researched on the pitcher plant from Meghalaya, extracted the anticancer active principles of the plant and patented them – as the paper mentioned above shows ‑ and so we the owners of our endemic pitcher plant have no rights over it any more.


Why? Because we were glum and had told ourselves, yes, we know the medicinal properties of the pitcher plant. But we did not deign to do scientific research, so we have now become preys of intellectual colonialism.


This is an assault on our intellectual sovereignty. And we alone are entirely responsible for this. Let me give another few examples: Neem, Haldi (turmeric) and Basmati, the fabulous fragrant rice. 


Patent rights are granted to inventors who identify a very unique use of a medicinal plant. In this, what matters is the novelty factor, that is noting of that sort had been stated or invented or created before.


But the medicinal properties of both Haldi and Neem were known to Indians for thousands of years. 


India fought hard at the World Trade Organization the European and US patent offices and the Indian Council for Medical Research successfully demonstrated that ancient Sanskrit texts had for millennia written about the properties of both these plants. Hence, the European and US patent offices cancelled the patent rights of both groups of scientists who had earlier received the rights on the false claims about their research being novel.


This stating of ancient knowledge, if done by citing ancient written treatises, is termed in global trade in patents as “prior art”. That is the only protection we have against ambush patenting efforts by foreign pharma predators.


Sacred Groves

According to scientists there are 14,000 established and registered sacred groves in India spread across but some estimate that there may be up to 100,000 such groves. 


These are found in the biodiversity hotspots, and there are globally recognised two such places in India: Sikkim and the Western Ghats.


But though the Sacred Groves have not been officially recognised as bio-hotspots, they are known to be rich in medicinal herbs, shrubs and plats. So imagine, if each of the 14,000 sacred groves had even just one endemic medicinal plat, we have 14,000 medicinal plants to save from what is called biopiracy. 


Biopiracy: Global Gene Robbery

What is biopiracy? By definition it is the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material, especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while failing to pay fair compensation to the community from which it originates.


And it may surprise many of us if we say that biopiracy has even fleeced entire tribes in India: like the Kanis of Kerala.


What is important is to realise that biopiracy is not the mere act of transplanting certain crops. For instance, take some basics such as potatoes and tomatoes. The first was a Portuguese tuber brought to India in the 1600s. Likewise, tomato is a Peruvian and Mexican plant.


So much of our edibles would be gone if they came under the definition of biopiracy. But they do not, because of two reasons; First, there was no law against biopiracy that old.


But most importantly, because the end little bit of the definition of biopiracy does not apply, which is “by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while failing to pay fair compensation to the community from which it originates.


The Portuguese had potatoes, THEY brought it here when they wanted to colonise India… we did not rib Portugal. Like biryani, which came with the Arabs and Persians as a combined meat-rice recipe. 


And more importantly, neither of these have been patented and their use restricted and the original community that owned it has not been made to pay for it. 


There is Avadhi biryani, Hyderabadi biryani, Kolkata biryani, and though the chefs in Hyderabad have now attempted to patent Hyderabadi haleem, it cannot restrict anyone from cooking her or his own variety, 


The Rhododendron-Hooker Connection

In the 1850s, the British were looking to expand their colonisation of Sikkim because they wanted a trade route to Tibet that did not face the hurdles set up by Nepal. At the time, Dr Joseph Dalton Hooker had come to Sikkim.


Hooker was to the world of botany what Darwin was to biology, a towering figure. His study of Sikkim flora led him to state that Sikkim had all the flora of Alpine Europe and North America combined and may be much more.


While in Lichen and Lachung in North Sikkim, Dr Dalton found an incredibly beautiful tree named Lalee Gurash, which is the Indian name for rhododendron. Dr Dalton ‘borrowed’ some seeds of the plant and planted them on the Royal Kew Botanical Garden in England where he was director after his India assignment. (Ref: Sikkim Gazetteer by AH Risley). 


From the Kew Garden, the plant later found its place across Europe. But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that the rhododendron has several medicinal properties. 


If ever an anti-HIV drug has to be developed, that will come from rhododendron, endemic to North Sikkim!


Read here: “Phenolic acids obtained from its leaves and twigs have been reported to have anti-HIV, anti-inflammatory, anti-nociceptive activities, and also its leaves and flowers are utilized for treating illness, headache, diabetes, rheumatism, etc.”


This is the plant that had been ‘borrowed’, with British colonial muscles, by Dr Dalton. So do we stand to lose the North Sikkimese communities’ rights – or for that matter, the rights of the Uttarakhand women – over this plant?


I mention Uttarakhand because Dr Anil Joshi, a zoologist from the state has empowered hundreds of women by making them manufacture rhododendron juice.


Till now, rhododendron juice has remained a source of livelihood of Uttarakhand women. But if a scientist in the West does any isolation of the active anti-HIV principles of the rhododendron, our sisters in Uttarakhand will lose the rights to sell that juice by the way-sides of the Dev Bhumi Uttarakhand. 


Despite the fact that there was no biopiracy law when Dr Dalton visited Sikkim, the fact that it grows all over Europe lends this a much desired “power to the elbow” of the West.


This and much more has to be stopped!


The Boonthing Story

Sikkimese Lepchas are an ancient and Most Vulnerable Tribe, a notch created above just Scheduled Tribes. The anthropological records including DNA samples record them to be present in Sikkim from 5000 BC or earlier.


That means that they have been living in these densely forested areas that Dr Dalton had mentioned as a biodiversity hotspot. And over millennia, they had developed three strange things: an accurate knowledge of the immense variety of endemic flora; their deep knowledge of the Himalayan geography and ecosystem; and their wonderfully developed and advanced alphabet system.


Of these, their knowledge of medicines and herbs was legend. The knowledge of these plants rested with people called boonthings, who are ancient traditional shamans. 


Now, boonthings are of two types, according to my friends Susanne Kramer from Austria, and Dr Jenny Bentley have for years been researching these issues. The first of boonthings are basically priests who conduct rituals at Lepcha homes, including strange death and cremation rituals. 


Jenny, a Swiss scientist now settled in Kalembong, West Bengal, is a doctorate on Lepcha issues, especially Shamanism. 


Susanne is one of Europe’s top Shamanistic Healers, who owes all her knowledge to Lepcha, Subba and Gurung shamans based in Sikkim. She is regularly consulted by modern medical hospitals in Austria when the patients feel they need alternative, nature-based cures because modern medicine is not working.


The second lot of the boonthings are the ones that deal with the curative systems involving the knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs.


In Sikkim the greatly erudite and compassionate Buddhist rajas had created Dzongu, a place in North Sikkim, which is a Lepcha Reserve, much in the mien of the Red Indian reserves that the Europeans destroyed some centuries ago. 


In Dzongu, there are areas that have around 800 endemic medicinal plants and herbs, but that is inaccessible. Inaccessible firstly because of the extremely difficult terrain and pathways known only to boonthings; and inaccessible due to the lack of knowledge of the medicinal properties of each of such plants.


Tribal Triumph

The Kanis are a tribe from Kerala. Their Traditional Environmental Knowledge had prior information for ages on a particular plant, which they used for energy giving in situations where they had to work in forests empty stomach. 


The plant was arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus travancoricus), a perennial herb, described as wonder herb due to its rejuvenating qualities. Though the main species, Trichopus zeylanicus, is found in Sri Lanka and Thailand, only the Indian variety is proved to have medicinal qualities.


In the subcontinent it grows in the wet forests of southern Western Ghats, falling in Thiruvananthapuram and Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district.


The Indian Forest Department joined hands with the Kani tribal community, a premier research institute and a public sector company manufacturing Ayurvedic products, in a unique benefit sharing partnership to revive the commercial production of an herbal drug derived from an endangered medicinal plant confined to a few pockets in the Western Ghats.


Developed by scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) using the traditional knowledge of the Kanis, the compound drug named Jeevani is known for its immunity-enhancing, liver-protective, anti-fatigue, and DNA-protective properties.


Reversed Trauma

But in 2004, Down To Earth reported this trauma, as quoted below:


India's wonder drug Jeevani developed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Tropical Botanic Garden Research Institute (TBGRI) using the traditional knowledge of Kerala's Kani tribe hit the headlines a few years ago. It was heralded as the world's first product that perfectly exemplified the access and benefit-sharing system involving indigenous people. The model even bagged the One Equator Prize in 2002. Now, Jeevani is in the news again. But for all the wrong reasons.


“Media articles suggest that a US company has surreptitiously patented the product and is doing brisk business on line. At the same time, Jeevani's original licensee claims that there are no takers for the medicine. Yet it continues to manufacture the drug. And TBGRI is at sixes and sevens over the position of the product with regard to intellectual property rights. Amid the tangled web, the Kani tribals, who provided valuable inputs for the medicine's formulation in the first place, have been sidelined.”


So we already had created a model of how to work the Convention on Biological Diversity under Agenda 21. But despite that, we were robbed. All over again. So there is this need to institutionalise such processes, and alert global pharma criminals, that if they transgress, we can sue them at the World Trade Organisation and other for a.


For this, a rigorous policy framework is the order of the day and the day is now.


The Basics of a Policy Framework

This knowledge has to be protected. But the modern Indian “Greek tragedy” is that many Lepchas have been converted to Christianity, due to sheer poverty. As has happened with the Santhals, Gonds, Munda’s and many other tribes of the northeast Indian states, such as Mizos and Khasis, of Kanis of Kerala, each with their specific knowledge of their endemic medicinal plants.


These are the tribes and their Traditional Environmental Knowledge, or TEK, that has to be protected from rapacious biopiracy. But there is no such policy framework, indeed, there is no thought on this at all.


There is need, therefore, to Have a distinct ministry to deal with TEK


·       A clear policy to register as many such endemic herbal potential patents as possible at the earliest, with local knowledge, to create, at the earliest, “prior knowledge” so as to first barricade piracy and eventually make it a legal offence under the Convention of Biological Diversity


·       To encourage such shamanistic schools as the boonthings to continue to ply their profession and not become extinct due to financial pressures. For this to be done, the future generations of boonthings and other shamanistic schools of the Subba, Gugungs and others have to be incentivised


·       To have a clear section of the Indian Forest Service to be set aside with botanists and the sole mandate to such deep research


·       Have a clear section with specialist botanist researchers looking into identifying such medicinal plants that are endemic


·       To create a separate and formidable fund for research and isolation of active principles of the plants we know to be endemic. The Ministry of Science and Technology needs to be incentivised and empowered with funds for such fundamental science research. Though the ministry has several research organisations under it, one, at least, needs to be tasked with this as a vanguard foundation to anti-biopiracy research.


·       The create a clear legislation so that the patent proceeds of such research and emanating medicine is shared with the community of origin. This has been one of the key issues of Agenda 21 emanating out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. 


Traditional Knowledge Digital Library

TKDL is run by the ministry of Ayush and the government’s stated position in the website is stated as below/


“TKDL contains information from Indian Systems of Medicine, viz., Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa as well as Yoga available in public domain. For this, traditional knowledge from the existing literature existing in local languages such as Sanskrit, Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Tamil in converted into digitized format, and is available in five international languages including English, German, Spanish, French and Japanese. Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC), an innovative structured classification system for the purpose of systematic arrangement, dissemination and retrieval was evolved for about 5,000 subgroups against few subgroups available in International Patent Classification (IPC), related to medicinal plants.


Gaps In The Net

However, this approach lacks a vital aspect. The registry of items in the TKDL is based on ancient literatures in Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Arabic and Persian literature, but this is indeed elite literature, the subaltern knowledge systems may not be a part of this. The Kanis, Mizos or Lepcha have never written in such languages.


This is why the Kani community’s knowledge could be stolen. The point is that this was not based on any ancient text. The researchers at the Tropical Botanic Garden Research Institute (TBGRI) had found the Kanis knowing about the properties of this plant and had mutually agreed to share the benefits arising from their research. 


The Convention on Biodiversity had not come to force then, so this mutual sharing of benefits had no protection of international law. 


The absolute imperative therefore is to send botanists to tribal areas for what in terms of one of the 21 things to be done save the earth under the Agenda 21 of Rio is what is called biodiversity inventorisation. This fundamental task of such specialsed teams need to go for hard field research. They need to reach out to the subaltern communities and inventories their biological resources common to the community.


The immediate next steps must be to sign an agreement with the community that once proven right, prior art shall be created based on their knowledge and they share the benefits. The next step is, of course, a scientific study of each of these plants and isolating their active principles. And then comes the final step: moving for patents in the US and Europe so that the patents have international legal sanctity. Only then our biogenetic resources can find a modicum of protection from piracy.