How to sell a wonder herb

by GRAIN | 20 Nov 1998
TITLE: How To Sell A Wonder Herb AUTHOR: Max Martin PUBLICATION: Down to Earth, Vol 7, No 12 DATE: 15 November 1998 SOURCE: Centre for Science and Envionrment (CSE), New Delhi URL: m


There is arogyapacha. A rare herb with extraordinary medicinal properties. There is the Kani tribe of Kerala. It has preserved the herb and the knowledge about its use. Enter scientists and the state government. They try to sell the herb and share the benefits with the Kanis in the first experiment of its kind in the world. The project flounders. And how. Max Martin analyses a failure snatched from the jaws of success.

The miracle-makers

Scientists are only now finding out the Kanis' knowledge of herbal remedies. The most outstanding find so far is arogyapacha.

SMELL of burning bamboo. The short and wiry figure of Ayyappan Kani. The elderly man is busy mixing herbs with a strange extraction from a piece of burnt bamboo. With a beatific smile, he explains that it will treat a boil on a little girl's belly. The place is Chonanpara, a Kani tribal settlement in a reserved forest of Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram district. Ayyappan Kani is a practitioner of malamarunnu, the medicine of the mountain, given to the Kani tribe by the mythical sage Agastya.

About 40 km away in Njaranili village, townsfolk come to consult Eswaran Kani, a traditional tribal healer. The pious medic explains that people gave him the nickname 'Eswaran' (meaning god) after he successfully treated some patients sent back by the Medical College Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram.

The Kanis, numbering about 16,000, live in the lush tropical forests of the Western Ghats. According to Kani myths, their ancestors were exceptionally adept at shooting arrows. The ancient sage Agastya disarmed a Kani couple to prevent the birth of a martial race in his abode of peace and meditation.

Instead, the couple were given a scroll on herbal remedies. And a boon to cure the sick with their chants. Kanis are now known for their sure-fire antidotes. The tribal knowledge of forest plants holds the key to several new discoveries and wonder drugs, a multi-billion-dollar business worldwide.

The Kani tribe's contribution from that treasure trove is arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus), a herb with tonic qualities. In Malayalam arogyapacha means 'health green'. Indeed. Its business potential is comparable to ginseng of Korea, says P Pushpangadan, director, Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), Thiruvananthapuram. Trained in Ayurveda and botanical research, Pushpangadan is a pushy seller of ideas.

"In South Korea, a large share of the foreign exchange is earned from ginseng," he notes. With its anti-fatigue properties, arogyapacha is a potential global hit, he says. Arogyapacha is the quintessential wonder herb. It possibly has immune-enhancing and liver-protecting qualities, claim scientists of TBGRI.

The discovery and the deal

Pushpangadan says he first came across the wonder herb in 1987, before the birth of TBGRI. During an arduous trek through the forests near the Agastya hills in Thiruvananthapuram, Pushpangadan and his colleague S Rajasekharan got a sudden "flush of energy and strength" after eating the seeds of arogyapacha given to them by two Kani guides.

After isolating the herb's rejuvenating properties, TBGRI scientists developed a traditional drug formula containing 15 per cent arogyapacha. They scientifically tested its toxicity and efficacy. "It took eight years of research," says S Rajasekharan, now an ethnobotanist at TBGRI (ethnobotany is the study of traditional knowledge and custom of a people relating to plants). "Starving rats ran around after consuming arogyapacha," narrates Ayyappan Kani about the tests.

In November 1995, TBGRI sold the formula to Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (AVP) of Coimbatore for a licence fee of Rs 10 lakh to produce the drug for seven years. The licence fee and the 2 per cent royalty on the profits from the formulation was to be shared equally by TBGRI and the Kani tribe.

Sharing of benefits with Kanis was a promise that TBGRI had made much before it became the catch phrase in biodiversity conservation. "Right in 1987, the scientists had promised the Kani tribals due share from any profit arising from research based on the plants we showed them," says Kuttimathan Kani, who was one of the guides who introduced Pushpangadan to the herb. "After a few years of silence, suddenly the two scientists came to visit us two years ago," he notes. They offered a share to the tribals. "It is the first experiment of benefit-sharing with a local community in India, and perhaps the world," says Pushpangadan. He wants it to be a model.

The herb clicked in the market. There was instant demand for the arogyapacha-based formulation called Jeevani, which was sold at the rate of Rs 160 for a 75-gram jar. There are orders worth a fortune pending from Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, says an AVP spokesperson. TBGRI is now in the process of developing another drug from the same plant: a non-steroid sports medicine. "We do not have long distance runners in Kerala. We lack endurance," says Pushpangadan. He notes that another arogyapacha formulation is being tested in sports schools of the state as an endurance-enhancing drug.

Now, there is a huge demand for the raw material. For full potency, the wonder herb has be to cultivated in its natural habitat, that is shady and wet tropical forests. Kuttimathan says that the pharmacy has offered the tribals a neat Rs 100 per kilogram of arogyapacha leaves. The tribals have started growing it in their backyard of their forest settlements under a government scheme. Says Madhavan Kani in Chonanpara: "We would pick up saplings from the forest and they grow well here."

If only it was this simple, we would have brought you a success story. But the state forest department had different ideas.

The red tape vs Kanis

When Kanis took arogyapacha leaves out of their settlements for sale, they were stopped at the forest check-post. At the state forest head office, Premachandran, chief conservator of forest (CCF), explains the technicality: "Arogyapacha is not included in the list of minor forest produce." Only minor forest produce is allowed out of the forest. Forest officials confiscate any consignment of arogyapacha going out of the forest. M S Joy, warden of ABP, and a forest guard on duty assure that they would not allow any of the wonder herb to go out.

Arogyapacha is a "rare plant" and is contraband in the free market, points out T M Manoharan, CCF (vigilance). On TBGRI's part, Rajasekharan argues that though initial studies suggested that arogyapacha was rare, subsequent studies showed that it was also found at other places in the region, including Tamil Nadu. He says cultivating and collecting the plant in the forest will not wipe it out. This raises a question: what is the forest department trying to protect except for its control over the poor tribe's limited means of generating an income? Pushpangadan maintains that TBGRI has written to the forest department to allow Kanis the right to cultivate and sell the herb.

In 1995, the government's Integrated Tribal Development Project in Nedumangad initiated a scheme in collaboration with TBGRI to help the Kanis grow medicinal plants in their settlements. Under the project, 50 select families received Rs 1,000 each. Reportedly, 20.25 hectares were under cultivation. "Many people successfully cultivated arogyapacha," notes Rajasekharan. TBGRI bought the leaves from the Kanis, paying Rs 30 per kg for chemical trial and for pilot production.

During the second harvest, some people uprooted the whole plant from their gardens and some others took the wild herb from the forest, according to TBGRI officials. This alerted the forest department against possible large-scale 'smuggling' of the herb. When Kanis tried to sell the herb, they were caught. In a widely reported operation in 1996, Manoharan confiscated 10,500 arogyapacha plants from a private nursery at Vithura village in Thiruvananthapuram. "We are trying to prevent destructive use of the plant," Manoharan explains.

The CCF's next argument is that it is mostly non-tribals or tribals acting on behalf of non-tribals who smuggle the plant. The forest department is not convinced that Kanis will benefit from the sale of arogyapacha. They believe that the sale will benefit private interests and not the tribal community.

"It is a way of exploiting the tribals by certain lobbies. They would ask Kanis to collect the plant and give them a little money or alcohol in return," says Kerala's forest minister P R Kurup. Such concern for the tribal people on the part of the forest department is laudable. However, imposing a blanket ban on taking arogyapacha out of the forest does not help anybody. Least of all the Kanis.

Manoharan says Kanis got little in return for whatever material they supplied. "If any pharmacy has collected arogyapacha, they have done it illegally," says Manoharan. G Gangadharan, general manager (product development) of Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, counters the allegation: "Our initial lot of 22,000 to 25,000 bottles were made from raw material made available by TBGRI, as per an agreement. There has been no production for the last one year."

It is improper for a government department to make changes in the law to aid a private company, notes Manoharan. "TBGRI could have sold the technology to Oushadhi, the state government's own drug company," he notes. Rajasekharan says that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) allows technology transfer to anyone who offers the biggest return. "There is a demand for the plant. If the Kanis cannot sell it, somebody else will. They will be the losers," he sums up.

Manoharan suggests artificial regeneration technique for the plant. TBGRI and a cooperative can help the Kanis cultivate the plant, he recommends, adding that they should seek permission for it in "due process". "What is the big hurry?" he asks. Yet he insists that the department's only interest is in ensuring that the Kanis are benefited.

Kanis are puzzled. "We are asked to grow medicinal plants but we cannot sell them," says Kuttimathan. He picked holes in the forest law while addressing the media at the first press conference staged by a Kani group at the press club of Thiruvananthapuram on June 11, 1998. In quite an articulate manner, he argued that the government should reward Kanis for conserving rare plants and developing special knowledge about them. He threatened to bring Kani families to the state secretariat for a sit-in strike. His immediate demand: allow Kanis to grow, sell and make profit from arogyapacha.

"The sale of the leaves would have given us a steady income," says Kuttimathan. The money meant for tribal development never reaches the Kanis, he points out.

The representatives of the tribe have launched the Kani Community Welfare Trust in November 1997, and started a bank account. Kuttimathan, secretary of the trust, notes that it has representation of 40 tribal settlements. But TBGRI, an autonomous institution under the state government, is yet to get permission to transfer the money to the account. The Kanis' share of the money from the TBGRI deal is yet to be given.

Kani vs Kani

The most bitter conflict of them all is between groups of Kanis themselves. Kanis have had to take sides in a battle fought on their part by two competing government agencies: TBGRI and the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (KIRTADS).

Supported by KIRTADS, many Kani elders believe that their traditional knowledge is sacred and should remain exclusive.

"It (traditional knowledge) should not be sold. But what to do? We are hungry," says Mallan Kani, a healer and practitioner of the tribal chant in Mangode settlement. Eswaran Kani, who has been formally trained by KIRTADS, puts it simply: "The Kanis have sold their secret because of their poverty; Rs 5 lakh (the Kanis' share of the licence money) is a pittance, considering the huge profits that can be made from it." He hints that the very name "arogyapacha" is an outcome of TBGRI's intervention. Kuttimathan has a different view. He says the younger generation of Kanis rechristened the wonder herb.

Tribal healers such as Eswaran are sticklers of a code of conduct that emphasises the purity of the practitioner. In September 1995, a group of nine Kani healers wrote a letter to the chief minister opposing the sale of their knowledge to a private firm. Eswaran visited Chonanpara to dissuade the Kanis from entering into the deal with TBGRI and selling arogyapacha.

"He went back a bit annoyed with us," says Kuttimathan. "If a healer has the knowledge, then as an individual he can gain. What is the use to the community?" he asks.

Some of the tribal healers are highly successful. Achappan Vaidyar is not a Kani. But the healer from Wayanad in northern Kerala has made a fortune.

KIRTADS has initiated a three-year training programme for tribal healers under Achappan's guidance. He is a celebrity in Wayanad, where tribal people live in penury.

"We are now documenting the tribal medical knowledge and details of the medicinal plants that the tribals use," says Vishwanathan Nair, director, KIRTADS. A PhD in tribal medicine, Nair says he refused to publish his thesis as he first wanted to know what the tribals have got. He also fears that any private firm might grab the tribal knowledge to make profits once the information is out as a book. There is no law to share benefits with tribals, he indicates. Nair's fear means that tribal knowledge will remain canned till a 'brave new world' dawns and the system sheds the red tape. High hopes.

Bureaucracy still haunts him. CSIR's Regional Research Laboratory (RRL) in Thiruvananthapuram, in collaboration with KIRTADS, had identified some effective herbal formulations based on tribal knowledge. "The results were exciting," says Vishwanathan Nair. RRL scientists note that one of them, an anti-diabetic formulation, proved to be more potent than a popular allopathic drug. But work on this front was discontinued at RRL following the transfer of a scientist working on it. There is also a fund crunch. "We have discontinued research as we do not have adequate humanpower," says Vijayan Nair, director, RRL. So much so for governmental drug development.

Yet, KIRTADS' former partners have differences with TBGRI's unconventional, market-friendly style. "Please do not involve us in it. We have nothing to do with pseudo-science," said A D Damodaran, former RRL director and well-known scientist in Kerala, commenting on the arogyapacha-based drug. In a telephonic interview, he refused to compare or link RRL's work on tribal medicine with that of TBGRI.

KIRTADS and TBGRI had unproductive interfaces through the 1990s. True to form, both the institutes turned down offers from each other to work alongside. Vishwanathan Nair says that in 1996 at a high-level meeting, KIRTADS' help was sought to organise Kanis and cultivate arogyapacha for commercial drug production. According to reports, the idea was to involve 1,000 families for cultivation in 2,025 hectares in tribal holdings. "They wanted pubic (forest) land, and the adivasis' labour to make profit for a private company which has a monopoly," says Vishwanathan Nair. He refused. "I said I would not do a contractor's job."

In July 1995, TBGRI scientists accused KIRTADS of trying to torpedo the arogyapacha project. "It is a clash of petty egos," alleges a TBGRI scientist. The Kanis do not have a role. While KIRTADS director Nair insists that the tribal medical knowledge should not be diluted by crass commercialisation, TBGRI scientists accuse KIRTADS of a "totally unscientific" practice of promoting tribal healers. TBGRI and KIRTADS: the twain shall never meet.

It is a power game which excludes Kanis. In 1995, KIRTADS had sought from the government the power to screen all who approach Kerala's tribal healers. It was not given.

An innovative, state-level bill has been drafted with KIRTADS's help by K Abdul Latheef, former faculty member of National Law School of India and joint coordinator of Kerala Environment and Human Rights Research Centre, Kozhikode. It gives exclusive rights to tribal communities over their intellectual property. KIRTADS has been pushing this draft since 1995. But the legislators are not interested.

The well-intentioned draft envisages that a tribal intellectual property rights (IPRs) council with judicial powers will oversee actions to prevent 'exploitation' and 'misuse' of tribal IPRs. Provided the bill becomes law, an infringement of tribal IPRs could lead to four years' imprisonment and a fine of Rs 500,000. Experts, however, note that the tribal IPR law may not work at the state level. "Constitutionally, it is under the jurisdiction of the centre," says BK Roy Burman, an expert on tribal IPR issues and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

The story of arogyapacha is that of a bold experiment faltering due to unrelenting bureaucracy and a policy vacuum. "The irony of the situation is that TBGRI, the Forest Department and KIRTADS are all part of the same state government, among whom there is no coordination or even a mechanism for dialogue," notes R V Anuradha, a New Delhi-based lawyer who submitted a case-study of this benefit sharing system to the CBD secretariat. The story of arogyapacha also illustrates how various government institutions try to push their own agenda in the name of an ethnic community.

India's tribal communities have a veritable gold-mine in their traditional knowledge. But the governments do not have a clue about its proper use. Bureaucrats will wait till kingdom comes before they let innovations based on tribal knowledge open for public good. If the knowledge is lost by the tribal communities, its fate is sealed in government files.

That the ancient sage Agastya disarmed Kanis and gave them medicinal knowledge is myth. But that the bureaucracy will not let them benefit from this knowledge is reality.

------------------------------------------------- BOX: Political battles

The benefit sharing scheme for arogyapacha saw hurdles right from the start. On July 22, 1995, the then chief minister of Kerala, A K Antony, was to sign a memorandum of understanding with Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (AVP), marking the technology transfer from the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI). It was deferred at the last minute following intervention from the opposition led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

The then leader of the opposition V S Achuthanandan argued that the licence fee was too little considering the huge international market potential of the formulation. Calling the agreement a "sell-out", he suggested that the licence fee could have run into crores of rupees.

The Marxist leader made a case for state government-run pharmaceutical companies, such as the Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals. He contended that the government could have considered transferring the technology to a public sector undertaking outside the state. If none of these was feasible, the government should negotiate with other private drug companies for a bigger share as royalty, argued the leader of the opposition.

P Pushpangadan, director, TBGRI, points out that the licence fee of Rs 10 lakh was adequate as AVP was taking the risk of buying a product untested in the market. It is a promotional drug, he points out, adding that a 2 per cent royalty is an internationally acceptable norm. "One to four per cent royalty is accepted worldwide," he notes.

Pushpangadan cites the example of a regional research laboratory of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research which transferred the technology of an Ayurvedic drug in the 1980s for less than Rs 2 lakh.Later, the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, sold the technology of a memory drug based on brahmi (Baccopa monnieri) for Rs 10 lakh. "It was a one-time transfer, though ours is not a complete transfer," says Pushpangadan. He argues that the seven-year term given to the private firm would help establish the credentials of the drug, and its licence can be sold later for higher profits. "It is the highest licence fee (paid for a drug based on traditional know-how) in India," Pushpangadan declares.

According to norms set by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the scientists who develop a formula are legible for 40 per cent of the licence fee. "But we did not claim anything," notes S Rajasekharan of TBGRI. An initial plan to give the scientists one-fourth of the licensing fee was dropped.

Moreover, once the CPI-M-led coalition came to power, it did not take any initiative. Nor did it try to make the state government's pharmaceutical company come up with an alternate plan of benefit sharing. The state government had a clear choice: either make the public sector capable of commercially utilising such knowledge or the let the private sector do so.

Achutanandan's advocacy of favouring state-owned agencies does not hold water. These agencies are not the market leaders, nor did they make an effort to buy tribal medicinal know-how. -------------------------------------------------

Down to Earth is a fortnightly journal published by Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi Email:cse(at) Web:

Author: GRAIN
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