Here's a story -- probably apocryphal -- from 17th century Kerala: The Portuguese had anchored off the Malabar coast and were received with warmth by the Zamorin. After a few days, the palace guards rush breathless into the court, lit with alarm. "Your Majesty, the foreigners are on the hill slopes," they report. "uprooting pepper vines and carrying them away to the ships. If they begin to grow these in their lands we will lose our trade." The Zamorin is unperturbed: "Ah, don't worry too much. They may take the vines but how can they take our monsoons."
Such was India's calm then, that begat generosity and a willingness to share its wealth with the world.
By October, 1996 when the prestigious New Scientist magazine wrote under the title, "Pirates in the garden of India", India's sanguine magnanimity was to end. A crisis was brewing. India had to do something.
Abduction of turmeric:
The war began thus: In May, 1995 the US Patent Office granted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center a patent [#5,401,504] for "Use of Turmeric in Wound Healing."
Well, well, well. Some discovery, that. Indians grow up with a constant awareness of turmeric. It permeates their life. It is an easy and generous plant [curcurma longa] that grows throughout the sub-continent. The tuber when dried keeps practically forever. Its decoction is a stubborn dye. It is a condiment that adds character to Indian food and helps digestion. Turmeric powder heals open wounds. Drunk with warm milk, it stems coughs, cures colds and comforts throats. Indians paint doorways with turmeric paste as an insecticide. Women in the south make a depilatory skin cream with it. Add the juice of fresh lime to dry turmeric, let it marinate for three days, dry it in the sun and grind it to a fine powder and voila, you have the brilliant red kunkum that 'dots' Indian women's foreheads and surrounds the gods in the temples.Roots are exchanged between people as a formal symbol of goodwill. Indians place freshly uprooted plants at the altar during Pongal and offer worship . [Do you know of another use of turmeric in Indian way of life? Please click this to send your input.]
For Indians turmeric is a benevolent goddess. For sound reasons, it transpires. Indian physicians had always packed their kits with turmeric. Now West's formal research was confirming many of its virtues. It is now believed to be able to treat dysentery, arthritis, ulcers and even some cancers. It is also found to protect the liver. [ Learn more by browsing this link]
Turmeric's grace is stunning cancer researchers. COX-2 inhibitor drugs have been known to block an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2 which aggravates arthritis. Dr. Mitch Gaynor at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center, New York uses these drugs in cancer treatment to impede this undesirable enzyme. Turmeric goes one step further: Dr. Chintalapally V. Rao of American Health Foundation, Valhalla, NY believes that while COX-2 inhibitor drugs battle the enzyme, the curcurmin element in turmeric prevents even the formation of the enzyme. [ Read the full story here.] That explains the pharma industry's round-eyed interest and the slew of patents filed by it.
Consider the implication of 'turmeric patent' #5,401,504. If an expatriate Indian in America sprinkles turmeric powder -- just as her ancestors in India have done for centuries-- on her child's scrape, she would in fact be infringing US patent laws and was open to prosecution.
The patent was promptly challenged by Dr. R A Mashelkar, an Indian scientist who has done much to awaken India to Intellectual Property Rights issues. After four months of submissions it was established that the use of turmeric as a healing agent was well-known in India. For some centuries, one is tempted to add.
The patent was annulled. But there were more battles ahead.
In 1996, Vandana Shiva -- an icon for Third World Knowledge Rights -- began to challenge the patent granted to the firm of W.R.Grace & Co by the European Patent Office, Munich for 'fungicidal uses of neem oil'. Now, it so happens that neem is as much a divine object in India as turmeric is. With far less education than modern scientists the Indian farmer over the ages had integrated neem into his work. It is a part of India's religious life, to sublimate anything of value to divine levels in order to engender an esteem and sensitivity for it. Shiva and Ajay Phadke [who had researched neem for Rhone Poulenc in India] flagged ancient Indian texts for their eminences in Munich to convince them that there was no 'novelty' factor in neem's magical properties that Grace had unveiled-- Indians had known them for long. This patent too was vacated.
Two battles won indeed, but there are many ahead. London's Observer reported that there were more than 100 Indian plants awaiting grant at the US patent office. And patents have already have been granted to uses of Amla, Jar Amla, Anar, Salai, Dudhi, Gulmendhi, Bagbherenda, Karela, Rangoon-ki-bel, Erand, Vilayetishisham, Chamkura etc, all household Indian names.These need to be vacated.
Bio-piracy doesn't affect just India. Much of Africa and Latin America are prowling grounds for First World's knowledge pirates. But India is emerging as a vocal and effective battler. It can bring diligence and persitence to a field deliberately soaked in obfuscation.
Vandana Shiva believes that the West has a clever structure in place. Using convenient patent laws as a system, the Trade Related Intellectual Property [TRIP] instrument as a stick and the World Trade Organisation [WTO] as the enforcing authority, the First World is seeking to 'rob' the Thirld World. She says in a rigorous article: "When the US introduced IPRs in the Uruguay Round as a new issue, it accused the Third World of 'piracy'. The estimates provided for royalties lost in agricultural chemicals are US$202 million and US$2,545 million for pharmaceuticals. However, as the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), in Canada has shown, if the contribution of Third World peasants and tribals is taken into account, the roles are dramatically reversed: the US owes US$302 million in royalties for agriculture and $5,097 million for pharmaceuticals to Third World countries."
A fair play in Kerala:
Dr.Mashelkar, now the head of CSIR, India, is directing the creation of a massive data base that will record all practical ideas proposed in Indian knowledge systems. Once created this will deny bio-pirates -- on the basis of prior knowledge of their use having existed -- the patents they seek to profit by.
Of course this will deny even Indian companies the exploitative advantage. But then, Indian campaigners against bio-piracy are leading not a partisan, nationalistic battle. In a perfect case scenario, profit -- if any-- must go to the pockets of communities which have striven to experiment, refine and preserve over the millennia, practical uses of nature's bounty.
Can that be done? There is already a success story in India. Listen to a neutral voice, that of BBC's Daniel Lak. He reports how in Kerala,two Indian scientists discovered the commercial potential of a herb called 'arogya pachcha'. A tribe called Kanis have for centuries preserved this herb, which yields a tonic that supplements sparse diets with many nutrients. Today the Kani's Tribal Welfare Trust is a co-holder of the patent. Benefits of arogya pachcha flow to the world and Kerala's Kanis, the true keepers of this ancient knowledge share royalties.
Something for the Zamorin's ghost to smile about after having had its hospitality abused for long.