Report No. 167
1.4. Knowledge and materials gained from times immemorial cannot be ignored.-
Mr. K.L. Mehra, former Director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, ICAR, New Delhi, in his article 'Indigenous Biodiversity Rights' published in Mainstream, Oct. 7, 1995 succinctly points out that plant biodiversity occurs in natural ecosystem and in farmer's fields/ecosystems. People have identified, conserved, selected and improved economic plant species in different parts of the world. It is undeniable that knowledge and materials of different communities were freely available. Each informal innovator (individual or group of individuals) shared his (their) innovation(s) with others. Thus, there was never felt necessity to keep records of who innovated what. Such manner of sharing knowledge and planting material lead to economic prosperity of peoples, communities and nations.
1.4.1. Our old scriptures lay down the characteristics, uses and applications of herbs and medicinal plants for curing diseases of mankind. Have these ever been claimed or subjected to patent rights?
1.4.2. In today's era, in a market economy, profit earning is made the sole aim and even by dint of piracy of traditional knowledge of informal innovators, many formal innovators masquerade their intellectual property rights in them by making minor modifications or advances. Mr. K.L. Mehra, (supra) discounts that botanists seek information free of cost from indigenous peoples which have accumulated through several generations of folk experimentation and adoption. When botanists publish such data, indigenous knowledge falls in 'public domain', and biodiversity prospecting work is promoted.
Industry researches exploit such information without making any payments to the informal innovators/communities. More than 7000 natural chemical compounds used in modern medicines and chemical industries have been employed by indigenous healers and other peoples for centuries. Other companies have often investigated useful attributes of substances known to a tribal community, and after isolating the active principle(s) thereof, they have modified the product(s) or sometimes used it as a lead for the design of a new synthetic compound, which may be generally more stable or less toxic than the original substance.
He cites the examples of such kinds of inventions viz., neem based derivatives like bio-pesticides; Ethiopian ended, Phytolacca dodecantra providing low-cost molluscicide and Thumatin, a natural sweetener. The annual market value of pharmaceutical and chemical products derived from medicinal plants discovered by indigenous peoples exceeded US $ 43 billion. The said author emphasises that there is a need to recognise Indigenous Rights and to develop appropriate and effective legal mechanisms to provide Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) and economic benefits to informal innovators (individuals and communities).
1.4.3. In an article on "Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict" on internet, it is pointed out that the industry has the world outraged with its biopiracy. Farmers have been marching in the streets of Delhi to denounce a US Patent on their Basmati rice; developing countries are taking TNCs to court for theft of indigenous medicinal knowledge; green revolution scientists are up in arms about seeds they are responsible for keeping public being privatised by Australian companies. Corporate hunger for fully-fledged patents on all forms of life -from human genes to entire crops species - is now at the centre of the world trading system.
The article further projects that several Latin American nations have been successfully lobbied to join the Union, although Brazil is thinking twice before it crosses the threshold. As the Workers Party has pointed out, if Brazil joins UPOV, 'We should not be surprised if in a near future our small farmers end up in jail for using protected rice varieties.' It is clear that Brazil's opposition party's analysis of UPOV sees the Convention as heralding a transfer of power from farmers and states to corporations. Another writer Nicola C. Ostertag while analysing the impact of TRIPS on the neem tree, views, on internet, that the neem tree is a natural and cultural resource for India.
Economic, legal and technological developments with regard to neem indicate that plant material and indigenous knowledge continue to be appropriated without compensation. Indian research and industry could be stifled by foreign countries. Traditional agricultural practices may be abandoned. The biological diversity with regard to neem could decline and overall TRIPS may hinder the best management of neem for the Indian people. He concludes that this outcome is not due to intellectual property rights alone, but is a consequence of a capitalist economic system of which intellectual property protection is a tool.