A fight to save traditional medicines

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Bioprospecting Conservationists use local names of herbs to keep the pharma companies guessing
Bioprospecting Conservationists use local names of herbs to keep the pharma companies guessing, Photo: Pankaj Oudhia

A beedi that does not cause cancer and quick-bites that reduce the ill-effects of alcohol sound like the perfect party combo. But, if tobacco and big pharmaceutical firms get a wind of what goes into them, these wonder beedis would cost more than regular cigarettes and the quick-bites would end up as hors d’oeuvres in the parties of the rich.

More importantly, tribal communities, which preserved these indigenous combinations of herbs for centuries, would end up losing access to their traditional forest produce. These and several other herbs are the finds of traditional healers and have been passed down through word of mouth from one generation to the next.

For the past two decades, Pankaj Oudhia, an agricultural scientist based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, has been documenting many of these herbal combinations used by the traditional healers in the forests of the state.

“It was found that smoking a combination of several local herbs in a tendu leaf (used for rolling beedis) does not cause cancer. I forwarded the findings to appropriate agencies for further testing,” says Oudhia.

“Similarly, there is another combination of herbs that is very tasty and when consumed takes away the ill-effects of alcohol on the liver. I approached the Chhattisgarh government to sell it next to alcohol shops. We distributed it in Raipur and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel stationed there were happy they could drink without worrying about cirrhosis of liver,” he adds.

The claims of the medicinal properties of these herbs should be verified independently before consuming. The efficacy of such herbs is still being tested.

Oudhia has created a database of the names of plants, their uses, combinations and efficacy, while cross-referencing these with video documentation.

There are several medicinal uses of rice-based formulations, rice-plant weeds, insect-based formulations, roots, branches, twigs and other herbs particular to the tropical Indian forests, which are used by traditional healers.

Oudhia has documented rice-based formulations for preventing and treating diabetes and cardiac disorders, oils and extracts for treating psoriasis, piles, gastric disorders, allergies, alcoholism, etc.

But Oudhia does not divulge the scientific names of these herbs and combinations. He says he is wary of pharmaceutical companies. “I have published several papers disclosing scientific names of the herbs and their medicinal value. But pharma companies often register the patents in their names. That is unfair. Traditional healers here discovered these herbs and their uses. The intellectual property rights should be theirs. Their community should benefit from these herbs and formulations that were preserved by them through the ages,” he says.

In fact, Oudhia and other such conservationists have been using made-up names and local names so as to keep the pharmaceutical companies guessing.

“In Kerala, a community lost its legal right to collect or use a medicinal herb because someone else won the rights to that plant. Oral traditions are not watertight pockets of knowledge. There are levels of innovation over time and space not limited to geographical terrain or groups of people,” says Sagari Ramdas, co-director of Secunderabad-based NGO Anthra, which works with agriculture, livestock and livelihoods among rural and Adivasi communities in Andhra Pradesh.

The debate for the protection of indigenous communities and their culture and traditions is not new. Although the Forest Rights Act gives forest-dwellers land titles and rights to forest produce, it does not protect the communities’ rights by recognising their ownership over the use of plants and herbs of commercial value.

“There has to be a system for these traditional systems to get recognition from modern institutions,” says Deep Joshi, member, National Advisory Council (NAC). “If a company quietly registers the patent for use of a medicinal herb developed by a tribe over the ages, where do these tribal people go? Even the regulators would register the patent easily because it is not practical for courts to keep track of the patents being registered and how genuine the claims are.”

The only solution would be for government, NGOs and local bodies to document the works of the traditional healers, and so adequate funds must be provided for the kind of work being done by Oudhia.

If such traditional remedies are documented, courts can refuse patenting of alternative medicines by pharma companies. At present, it is easy for companies to register patents for the use and manufacture of herb-based formulations if the scientific names of the herbs are known.

Globally, this phenomenon is known as bioprospecting, which is not considered an ethical practice. To simplify it, it would be the same as listening to your neighbour sing new tunes and register them under your own copyright.

M Madhusudan, director of Yakshi, an NGO that works with tribal communities in Andhra Pradesh, is vocal about community-based rights and of using a sensitive approach in debates regarding tribal issues. “The patent regime is flawed. There is a loophole. If a pharma company registers a patent for use of medicinal herbs in Andhra Pradesh, it may affect the rights of another in Jharkhand,” he says.

The government is also not sensitive to the case of the traditional healers. The forest department of Chhattisgarh had got several thousands of traditional healers registered, but later wanted them to start understanding and preaching allopathic medicine. This is in line with the thinking of several international aid agencies that believe the way to take mainstream medicine and health issues into the forest and tribal communities is through the traditional healers.

“In 2003, a local healer claimed to have found a cure for sickle cell anaemia. Doctors dismissed the find and labelled him a quack. Later in 2012, a Nagpur doctor did that same study and wanted me to endorse it, but he did not want to give any financial support to the healer who had discovered the cure,” says Oudhia.

“The senior healers are dying and their knowledge is vanishing because no one is trying to save and preserve it. The only ones interested are those who can make some profit out of it.”

Oudhia believes traditional healers to be the real heroes. “They live off farming and forest produce” he says. “They believe that if they take payment for the knowledge, then they will lose it. But the big threat is from national and international pharmaceutical companies who call them quacks publicly, and want to market their knowledge commercially.”

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