UN study analyzes how benefits from traditional medicines are shared

10 February 2004

A new United Nations report spotlights the complexities of equitably sharing profits from the commercial use of herbs traditionally nurtured by indigenous groups, but recently analyzed and patented by non-indigenous corporations.

The study, produced jointly by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), highlights the shortcomings of existing agreements while pointing out that there is scope for property rights to be used more effectively to generate and share benefits more equitably.

Offering examples, the report notes that a Genetic Resource Recognition Fund was established at the University of California at Davis to share the benefits from the commercial use of a now patented, disease-resistance gene taken from rice used by the Bela people in Mali. But so far, the Trust has received no funds.

The WIPO/UNEP study also questions why the blight-resistance gene from Oryza longistaminata and the associated technical knowledge are not being made available to the Institute of Economic Research in Mali, given the current work by UC Davis to transfer the gene into Chinese rice varieties.

The Bela people have been given "no formal recognition as primary conservators and holders of detailed knowledge of this disease-resistant variety of wild rice," it notes.

In India, a team of researchers from the All India Coordinated Research Project learned from the Kani people about an energizing substance derived from the Arogypaacha plant. Subsequently the Tropical Botanic Garden Research Institute in Kerala developed, tested and licensed it to companies under the name Jeevani.

The Kerala Kani Samudaya Kshema Trust was set up in the late 1980s, funded by some of the profits from licensing Jeevani. The trust's objectives included community welfare and development projects for the Kani in Kerala.

The patents filed on the medicines excluded an important Indian healers' association called Plathis, however, and covered just India, the study says. Nonetheless, it notes, Jeevani products are being sold outside India, with at least one company in the United States falling outside the licensing and benefit-sharing agreement.

 

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