Pluck, not plunder
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CTA. 2002. Pluck, not plunder. Spore 99. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Demand for medicinal plants is growing. But in the rush for quick profits, we may lose inestimable knowledge, much biodiversity and some common sense.Two in three people in developing countries use herbal medicine for their primary health care. Yet...
Demand for medicinal plants is growing. But in the rush for quick profits, we may lose inestimable knowledge, much biodiversity and some common sense. Two in three people in developing countries use herbal medicine for their primary health care. Yet it took a small prickly plant and a group of bushmen to shine the world s spotlight on medicinal plants, and the issues around their cultivation and ownership. In June 2001, a report on the hoodia cactus in the London-based broadsheet newspaper, The Observer, made quite a stir. Since time immemorial, the succulent hoodia has grown in the Kalahari desert in southern Africa and has been eaten by the San bushmen during their long hunting trips. Its juice takes the edge off appetite and thirst, and has enabled the hunters to respect their tradition of bringing home their entire catch, without eating of it on the way. The appetite-suppressing essence in the plant caught the attention of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which patented it in 1995 under the code name P-57. In 1997, they sold the commercial drug rights to a British biotechnology firm Phytopharm plc. The next year, Phytopharm licensed P-57 to the giant US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, to develop as a weight-loss product in the massive 6.5 billion dieting market. That deal was worth up to 34.5 million. In June 2001, alerted by journalists, the San decided at their annual gathering to demand compensation, feeling that their knowledge was being stolen. They argued that the companies should have made an agreement with them, instead of claiming they were extinct! In mid-March 2002, the San and Pfizer worked out a benefit-sharing plan, entitling the San to a share in future royalties. The P-57 anti-obesity pill is now in its clinical testing phase and should enter the market in 2006. The San will use these four years to develop the cultivation of hoodia, to protect it from becoming extinct. Whose property was this knowledge, and who should be compensated? Was it the Dutch anthropologist who first recorded the tribe s use of the plant in 1937, his descendants, the tribe, or the country, asked Phytopharm? Or which of the four countries that the San people live in? The Hoodia-P-57 case illustrates the complexity of medicinal plants issues, nowadays. In April 2002, at a United Nations meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity, guidelines were adopted that 'promise to improve the way foreign companies and other users gain access to valuable genetic resources in return for sharing the benefits with the countries of origin and with local indigenous communities'. There was, though, no agreement on intellectual property rights, nor against overexploitation of medicinal plants. It is around those property rights that the heat is on. A coalition of 325 NGOs and farmers organisations has drawn up a draft treaty to protect the world s gene pool, also known as the Genetic Commons. The aim is to prevent plants from being treated as intellectual property and being patented. The coalition has been pushing, with scant success, for the treaty to be adopted by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2002. The argument goes further, and takes on an agricultural side, amongst others. While property rights may or may not be traded, genetic materials and plants can, and are. Grown in the field, or plucked from the bush and the forest, dried, fresh, in powder, processed into pills or dissolved in potions, botanical essences are used by all the various schools of health care , from modern pharmacological science, to aromatherapy, homeopathy and traditional medicine. The latter, incidentally, is defined by the World Health Organisation as being 'the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health ' Explicable they are, in most cases. The issue of scientific validation of medicinal plants certainly needs further research, but most plant-based medicines today are used for what native people originally saw as their use. According to Maurice Iwu, director of Nigeria s Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme, claims of local communities and the subsequent scientific evidence were in agreement in 85% of the cases studied by BDCP. The cradle of cultivation Some even say that medicinal plants stood at the cradle of agriculture. More than 50,000 years ago, the Neanderthal people in western Asia used woody horsetail (Ephedra) as a stimulant. It seems that active cultivation started with psychoactive and medicinal plants and not with foodcrops: Cinchona sp. for quinine against malaria, liquorice from Glycorrhyza glabra, a tranquillizer from serpent wood (Rauwolfia serpentine) and periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). History is long, but memories and time are short. The Worldwatch Institute reports that only 1% of all plant species have been screened for bioactive compounds, and that traditional knowledge about medicinal plants is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves. Many are suffering from loss of habitats through land clearance and deforestation and from overharvesting. Heavy demand, for example, for the bark of the Prunus africanus, used to treat prostate diseases, has led to severe depletion of the tree in central Africa. Production, mainly by wild harvesting and increasingly by cultivation, is being pulled by a strong surge in world demand, growing at 15% a year. Prices paid to gatherers are often too low for small farmers to take up cultivation, although larger enterprises in, say, Senegal and South Africa, have done so. The volume of world trade in medicinal plants is hard to measure, according to the International Trade Centre which estimates an export market value of several billion dollars, not to mention domestic opportunities. A substantial part is unrecorded, or underground, and it is difficult to separate medicinal usage from other uses, such as flavouring, tenderisers, insecticides and perfumes. While the leading world suppliers are China, Singapore, Brazil and Egypt, several ACP countries have medicinal plants (and plant extracts) high on their list of exports, including Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Vanuatu and Madagascar. Could be good for your financial health The leading importer is the USA, followed by the EU, with Mexico, Poland and South Korea rapidly expanding their markets. The world trading centre for medicinal plants is Hamburg, Germany, mainly because of that country s leading position within the European market. Despite the massive growth in market opportunities, the import trade is, if anything, getting harder to enter by the day. In the USA, Japan and the EU there are ever stricter quality criteria for consumer safety. The European Parliament is tussling with new definitions, alongside a similarly jumpy US legislature. The complexities and volatilities of these markets have been identified as a major constraint to ACP exports during the series of regional herbs seminars involving the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Centre for the Development of Enterprise and CTA, of which the next, Caribbean version, is set for December 2002. It is though a slice of business well worth going for, as long as you neither clutch at straws in the market, nor pluck too greedily at the plants. Most medicinal plants can be harvested leaves, pods, seeds, flowers, bark - without killing them, in a measured way. Several community-based programmes have embarked on a sustainable use of forests. Cases in Madagascar, Indonesia and Belize have shown that one hectare of forest, when sustainably used for logging and harvesting medicinal plants yields more income than clearing it for crop cultivation or animal husbandry. The wiser option is cultivation. That requires investment, and thus a security of income, as well as the guarantee that the habitats of the wild relative plants can be protected, and owned, somehow, for the common good. [caption to illustration] Knowledge and hard work is of the essence: preparing the oil of cloves in Madagascar [summary points] The steps towards a sound medicinal plants scenario: Resolution of intellectual property rights Recording local knowledge Scientific validation of medicinal plants Accessible market information, especially trends and regulations Research to define sustainable levels and methods of cultivation and wild harvesting
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