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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 13:42 GMT
Indians move to guard traditional know-how
Villagers Indian villagers are starting to realise the value of traditional knowledge

By Delhi Correspondent Daniel Lak

As the world trade talks in Seattle get under way, developing countries are watching with concern how a number of key issues are handled.

No issue is more sensitive or evocative than what has become known as intellectual property rights, basically ownership of knowledge.

The battle for free trade
Developing countries are under pressure to bring their own laws on such rights into line with the rest of the world, but they're worried that other nations and multi-national companies covet much of what is traditional knowledge, especially in the field of medicine and herbal lore.

India is expected to take a prominent role in expressing the concern of poorer nations, especially since it has experience of dealing with incidents in which such knowledge has been used profitably - without admitting where that knowledge comes from.

Kerala leads the way

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, it is hard to imagine that the women drawing water from a well in a settlement of the indigenous Kani tribe are at the cutting edge of thinking about intellectual property rights.

We didn't know before that our knowledge had value.
Mathan Kani, secretary of the Tribal Welfare Trust
For the first time ever a deal has been signed to give people like the Kanis a share of profits earned from exploitation of traditional knowledge by international drugs companies.

A humble plant from the forest floor called aragyopacha is the key to this. The Kanis have known for centuries that eating its leaves produces energy and banishes fatigue.

Two Indian scientists came across this practice in 1987 and they've developed a herbal tonic that's in great demand all over Asia. But the crucial thing for the Kanis is that they are the recognised co-holders of a patent on the drug and receive half of its profits.

Mathan Kani, secretary of the Tribal Welfare Trust that spends the proceeds from the tonic, says his forefathers ate the plant to be able to work in the fields when food was scarce.

"Now we are selling it to the world as a tonic. We didn't know before that our knowledge had value - now we have money in our Tribal Trust to spend on development," he says.

Trademark for turmeric?

India has not always been so generous. Nor for that matter have other countries. The most common practice with intellectual property these days is to find out if someone owns it already and, if not, make a grab for it. It's a lesson that India learnt very recently.

Our grandparents first told us about turmeric. It's more than just a food - it has powerful healing properties.
Spice merchant Satendra Singh
In Old Delhi's main wholesale spice market, known as Masala Mandi, chillies, coriander, cumin, nutmeg - the contents of an entire spice cupboard are displayed. Some spices are in bins, others are heaped in towering aromatic cones of brightly coloured powder - red, brown and the brilliant yellow of turmeric, known in Hindi as haldi.

For Indians turmeric is more than a way of colouring or flavouring a curry, it's also a traditional medicine that's been used in this country for thousands of years.

"Our grandparents first told us about turmeric," says spice merchant Satendra Singh. "It's more than just a food. It has powerful healing properties if you sprinkle it on a wound, and you can drink turmeric mixed with milk if you have internal injuries."

Satendra Singh knows turmeric can be used as an antiseptic powder on cuts and wounds, and so do most other people in India.

So Indians were taken aback when several years ago an American company tried to patent turmeric.

Sixty centuries of medical experience

Dr RA Mashelkar, a government research scientist specialising in India's traditional medicine, got wind of the American plan and swung into action. He saw that a patent on the wound-healing properties of turmeric had been granted by the US Patent Office, and asked for a re-examination of the case. After a four-month effort to collect the information, the patent was finally revoked.

To prevent any future theft or use for profit of what is common knowledge for Indians, Dr Mashelkar is putting together a database about the most well-known plants and herbal remedies.

He is translating from ancient languages when necessary, but distilling 60 centuries of medical experience into a useable format isn't proving easy and his project is not getting the support he necessarily needs.

No-one should interfere with our traditions or try to take them from us.
Satendra Singh
Journalist Umesh Anand, who writes extensively on intellectual property rights, fears the database may be too little too late. He says knowledge has not been systematically recorded because most people have never seen Indian knowledge as something worth using.

But in the Masala Mandi in Old Delhi there is a bit more optimism, a growing awareness that India has rights to its knowledge and that politicians had better start asserting them aggressively.

Spice merchant Satendra Singh sums up the mood, surrounded by nodding customers:

"No-one should interfere with our traditions or try to take them from us," he says. "Everyone in India knows about turmeric. It belongs to us and we offer it to the world so long as they don't forget that it's Indian."
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See also:
23 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Developing countries fight for free trade
25 Nov 99 |  Talking Point
World trade - who really benefits?
28 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Global hopes, global fears

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