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Kani tribals reap financial benefits from wonderdrug Jeevani

By T Shiras Khan

In a benefit-sharing biodiversity model that has made the UN sit up and take notice, the Kani tribals of Kerala share the benefits of the licensing fee and royalties on the sale of wonderdrug Jeevani derived from the 'magical' Aryogapacha plant. The man who has made this global benefit-sharing model possible is Dr P Pushpangadan

Dr.PushpangandanDr Pushpangadan, former director of the Tropical Botanical Garden & Research Institute (TBGRI), Kerala, and now director of the National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, and Kani tribal leader Kuttimathen Kani received the United Nations Equator Initiative Prize 2002 at the Earth Summit held in Johannesburg recently. They won the award for the innovative Kerala Tribal Project on Ethnomedicine.

The Equator Initiative Prize was established by the UN this year for the most outstanding projects\programmes that successfully address issues of conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of the benefits of biodiversity and associated knowledge systems, thereby helping eradicate poverty in the equatorial belt. There are 130 countries in the equatorial belt, in which are concentrated the world's greatest wealth of biodiversity. But this is also the region with the greatest concentration of poverty.

The Equator Initiative addresses many of the issues most fundamental to global sustainable development.The programme encourages innovative local solutions in the five priority areas identified for the World Summit on Sustainable Development: energy, health, agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

When nominations for the first Equator Initiative Prize were invited in January 2002, Dr R A Mashelkar, director general, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, nominated Dr Pushpangadan's model of the sustainable utilisation and sharing of Kerala's biodiversity. "India has pioneered one of the first models of benefit-sharing," said Mashelkar.

For the 2002 award, the technical advisory committee evaluated 420 nominated projects from 77 countries within the equatorial belt. On the award night on August 30, the UN announced the awards to 27 selected groups, only one of them from India. The award carries US $30,000 for each group and a certificate of appreciation.

The Kerala Ethnomedicine Project documents the ethnomedical knowledge of the Kani tibes of Kerala, and deals with research, product development, patenting which recognises indigenous rights, licensing, technology transfer and benefit-sharing. The model focuses on the development of a scientifically validated herbal drug named Jeevani, long used by the Kanis. It is the first world model of benefit-sharing that implements Article 8(j) of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity.

The TBGRI agreed to share the licence fee and royalty obtained for Jeevani with the tribal community on a 1:1 basis. Technology for the drug Jeevani has been transferred to a reputed ayurvedic drug manufacturing company for a period of seven years. TBGRI received Rs 10 lakh as licence fee and 2% royalty on ex-factory sales. The Kanis have registered a trust called the Kerala Kani Samudaya Welfare Trust, which received half the licence fee (Rs 5 lakh) and receives a share of the royalty. The trust funds are being used for welfare activities for the Kanis.

It was in 1987 that Dr Pushpangadan, then chief coordinator of the All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology (AICRPE) at the regional research lab, Jammu, conducted a study tour of the tribal Agasthyamala areas of the Western Ghats to document and scientifically validate indigenous knowledge. Fatigued during the trip and unable to walk on, the tribals accompanying him gave him the fruit of Aryogapacha (meaning 'healthy green' or 'always healthy') which they had been eating for generations to relieve fatigue and feel fresh and energetic.

Pushpangadan collected a few samples of the seeds and took them back to Jammu to find out what the plant contained. Though it contained no steroids, mice which ate this fruit remained active for 18 hours while mice injected with amphetamine remained active for only six hours.

During this period Pushpangadan became director of the TBGRI, and began the benefit-sharing project that won him the UN Prize.

Jeevani has been found to have anti-fatigue, anti-tumour, antioxident, adaptogenic, anti-allergic, aphrodisiac, immunomodulatory and hepatoprotective actions.

Its ayurvedic identity is Varahi, one of the 18 divine herbs mentioned in the Charaka Samhita and Susrutasamhita. Its botanical identity is Trichopus Zeylanicus, a herbaceous, perennial, rhizomatous plant found in the Agastyar hills of the Western Ghats(in Kerala and Tamil Nadu).

The Kanis, who now have a population of a little over 16,000, live mainly in the Agasthya forest region of Trivandrum district. They are believed to be the descendants of Agasthya Muni, founder of Sidha, the Tamil system of medicine. The Kanis say they can live actively only on the unripe fruit of the Arogyapacha for over 15 days. They believe the fruit is a gift from their ancestor Agasthya Muni, to help them survive in the forest.

TBGRI has also trained dozens of tribal families to cultivate the plant around their dwellings in the forest. In the first year, each family earned about Rs 8,000 on the sale of leaves from cultivation of Arogyapacha.

"It is a remarkable venture in material transfer and benefit-sharing from tribals. I do not think a similar project has happened elsewhere in the world," Dr Pushpangadan says.

(For Dr P Pushpangadan's model of benefit-sharing, click on:

(Dr T Shiras Khan is a campaign officer at the Farm Information Bureau, Government of Kerala and founder-director of the Centre for Media Studies, Trivandrum.)

(InfoChange News & Features, October 2002)