TBGRI working on a bigger project to extend benefits to the Kani tribe
As the ongoing Conference of Parties to Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad considers access and benefit-sharing, an early experiment in benefit-sharing is a shambles at Kottoor in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala.
All that remains of the attempt to share the benefits of traditional tribal knowledge among the Kani tribe in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam districts are a defunct Trust formed by the Kanis and the ruins of an unfinished computer training centre for their children.
Kutti Mathen Kani was secretary of the Trust and one of the three who passed on their knowledge of a plant, Arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus travancoricus), to scientists of the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) at Palode near here for validation. He is now afflicted with tuberculosis, and living in an unfinished house.
The herb used by the Kani tribe to combat fatigue during arduous journeys through forests brought fame to TBGRI scientists and Mr. Mathen Kani, Mallan Kani and Eachan Kani. Mr. Mathen Kani travelled to South Africa with the former TBGRI Director, P. Pushpangadhan, to attend the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg; he was even featured in an international weekly magazine. What he has been left with now are memories, some photographs and a passport that is about to expire.
Their story began in the late 1980s when the three Kanis guided into forests a team of scientists, led by Dr. Pushpangadhan and S. Rajasekharan, who were then working at the Regional Research Laboratory (CSIR) in Jammu. The scientists noticed that the Kanis ate the fruits of a plant to remain energetic during the journey and persuaded them to give information on medicinal plants they used for validation. The research later shifted to the TBGRI when Dr. Pushpangadhan became its Director.
“We had given them several plants. After years of research, they told us that they found medicinal properties in only one — Arogyapacha. They said they could not give the benefits to individuals. So, as directed by them, we formed the Kerala Kani Samudaya Kshema Trust for benefit-sharing,” Mr. Mathen Kani told The-Hindu. Mr. Mallan Kani became the president.
The TBGRI found rejuvenating qualities in the leaves, fruits and seeds of Arogyapacha (the latest research in the U.S. show that it has antioxidant and DNA-protecting properties). They entered into an agreement with the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, Coimbatore, for making Jeevani, a health tonic based on Arogyapacha and a few other herbs. The Trust received half of the licence fee of Rs. 10 lakh and half of the royalty of the two per cent. Of that, Mr. Mathen Kani and Mr. Mallan Kani received Rs. 20,000 each in one-time payment. Mr. Eachen Kani got Rs. 10,000. Mr. Mathen Kani and Mr. Mallan Kani also got work for some years at the TBGRI as ‘consultants,’ drawing Rs. 1,500 a month. They lost the job after Dr. Pushpangadhan left the TBGRI.
The tribe got a few lakh rupees by selling Arogyapacha to the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy. Initially, the herb was collected from the forests around the Agastya Peak — and this led to the depletion of plants. Though the plant was cultivated later, several problems came up in the procurement of raw materials. The pharmacy walked out on the deal in 2008. By then, the process patent obtained for Jeevani by the TBGRI had also expired. No patent was obtained for the product when patents were introduced in the country in 2005. In between, the plant was collected illegally in the forests.
The Trust tapped into its fixed deposits to buy a jeep, and then to maintain it. Division broke out in the community as not all got the benefits. A new team took over as president and secretary of the Trust, but they could not carry the work forward. The jeep had to be sold as revenues ceased. Despite the problems, some of the Kanis benefited for a while.
Dr. Rajasekharan notes that this first benefit-sharing model, preceding the Convention on Biological Diversity, had merits and demerits. Capacity-building was a problem. Though the Kanis were imparted training, he said, they could not manage the Trust well and their decision to use the fixed deposits for buying a vehicle was wrong, going as they did against his advice.