Wall Street Journal Asia, Hong Kong:May 12, 2006.  p. W.8 

"Modern medicine? New life for old cures"

by Kevin Voigt

Chhindwara District, Madhya Pradesh -- High in the Satpura mountain range, the land dramatically drops away at Patalkot, a remote crescent-shaped valley cut into the heart of central India. Nestled in the lush, rugged terrain -- where panthers and leopards prowl -- is an abundance of plants purported to have medicinal properties.

It is here that the Gond and Bharia tribes make their home, much as they have for centuries: Fires are lit by flint, water is collected from natural springs and at night the valley echoes with drums and songs about local gods and folklore. A single road connects the rim of the valley to the outside world; its center can only be reached on foot.

And it is here that Deepak Acharya is also on the prowl. Dr. Acharya, a microbiologist and botanist, is a modern-day herb hunter whose quarry is the knowledge held by the tribes' aging local mystic healers, known as bhumkas. As Dr. Acharya and other researchers around the world race to explore and document ancient remedies before the practitioners die out, so are governments such as India's racing to protect their countries against "biopiracy," the poaching of native plants, animals and ideas by overseas interests. To that end, New Delhi is building a giant database of India's traditional herbal medicines and stepping up efforts to get the World Trade Organization to help protect the country's ancient intellectual property.

"The knowledge of bhumkas is literally dying off," says Dr. Acharya, who puts the average age of the healers among the valley's 2,500 tribal members at 65 years. "It's a dynastic chain of knowledge," he adds, "and that chain is being broken as young people leave the valley for work."

Dr. Acharya, 30 years old, has been coming to the valley since 1997. He has put together the first written survey of the area's plants and what the bhumkas use the herbs for; the tribesmen, most of whom are illiterate, are accustomed to verbally passing knowledge from generation to generation. The Indian government, meanwhile, is trying to capture the knowledge of the country's indigenous people on a much wider scale. Along with others, including China, it is pushing for protection of native plants and medical practices from foreign companies as part of the WTO's Doha Work Program, which encourages sustainable development. "Developing countries are a recognized repository of traditional knowledge," Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said at a recent conference. "We have, therefore, sought measures to prevent biopiracy of biological material and to prevent misappropriation." Later this year, his government plans to unveil a 30-million-page project known as the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, which will include more than 120,000 remedies contained in the country's ancient texts. Because of the lack of written records, tribal medicines won't be included.

Currently, a team of 150 information-technology specialists, medical doctors and traditional healers is poring over ancient Indian texts in an array of languages including Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Tamil to translate them into English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish.

The project to computerize the data started in 1999 after the Indian government successfully blocked a U.S. company from patenting the use of turmeric -- a spice widely used in Indian food and whose powers to heal skin wounds were lauded in ancient texts of Ayurveda, or traditional Hindu medicine. Modern-day scientists have shown that the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is beneficial in treatments ranging from skin cancer to Alzheimer's Disease.

India's goal is to protect itself against foreign companies patenting native medicine. Still, the library may eventually be opened up to researchers and pharmaceutical companies from around the world, says V.K. Gupta, the library's chairman. "We have been approached by several multinational companies . . . the project has enormous potential for new drug discovery," says Mr. Gupta. While pharmaceutical companies often have to spend "$1.5 billion and 15 years in research for a new drug . . . (traditional remedies) can be a much shorter route and cost a fraction of the price," he contends.

Meantime, Indian entrepreneurs such as Manish Singh are positioning themselves to cash in on the native health movement. Last year, Mr. Singh hired Dr. Acharya to head Pistiss Herbal Research Lab (Pvt.) Ltd., which will collect and study the efficacy of tribal remedies. Mr. Singh runs Draft-Air India (Pvt.) Ltd., a company in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state, that makes air conditioners and fans for textile plants. "A few years ago, we began looking to diversify into a new industry," says Mr. Singh, who is thinking big. "We think that medicinal plants for the Indian economy could become what oil is to the Persian Gulf," he says.

"We aim to document indigenous knowledge, then test it in the laboratory," says Dr. Acharya. "We hope to produce drugs that are easy to access, low-cost, and protect the intellectual property rights of the tribes." Pistiss plans to donate a third of profits from any drugs developed to the tribal communities from which they came.

Mr. Singh's project caught the eye of S.K. Nanda, principal secretary of Gujarat state and guardian secretary of the Dang district, a rural region in southeastern Gujarat named for the local tribe, the Dangs. Dr. Nanda, whose doctoral thesis was on the migration habits of Indian tribes, has tried to build a traditional medicine industry in the district to stem the number of people who leave the area each year in search of migrant labor. "When I interviewed tribal women, I first asked them what was their greatest wish," says Dr. Nanda. "First was a house full of food; second was that their husbands and sons would return home."

To smooth the research effort, Dr. Nanda is encouraging the local government to give Dr. Acharya information on local healers. Dr. Nanda is also encouraging members of the local society of healers to share their secrets, and he is providing translators from district government offices to help Dr. Acharya document the Dangs' medicine. "It took me two years to win over the trust of tribal healers in Patalkot," says Dr. Acharya. "The government support is opening doors faster for me here."

At first glance the differences between the tribe of the Dang district and those of Patalkot are profound. The gods, customs and language are different; the district's back-country roads are pristine compared with the pock-marked state highways near Patalkot, where roadside stores do brisk business replacing and repairing blown tires. In Dang district, there's a 130-bed Western-style hospital and pump water; residents in Patalkot see a visiting Western-trained doctor once a month and fetch their water from natural springs and brick wells. But tribes in both areas share a suspicion for outsiders as well as fame for the reputed efficacy of local healers -- known as bhagats to the Dangs tribe -- and a landscape rich in plants used in traditional medicine. And both are losing their traditional medicine to deforestation, modernization and migration. "We have great medicinal wealth here," says Dr. Nanda at a government rest house, before chairing a meeting between Dr. Acharya and local tribal healers. "And it's the job of Dr. Acharya to document what that is."

One of the busiest healers in the district is Janu Kaka, a 75-year- old tribesman who has been practicing for more than 50 years, but whose son never learned the craft, opting instead to work as a migrant laborer for several months a year outside the district. On a recent Sunday, the teahouse waiting room of his medical practice was filled with patients, several of whom had traveled more than eight hours from as far away as Mumbai. They wait to enter his dark, closet-size room that contains garden shears and a box of herbs and roots that have been plucked from the surrounding forest and wrapped in newspaper. Most patients seeing him come on referrals from friends and family, and nearly all sought the advice of Western doctors before turning to tribal medicine for help. Shrenik Nagar, 28, from Mumbai, is here with his 22-year-old wife, Leena, to get a prescription to help them conceive a son. "My brother came here, and it worked for him," Mr. Nagar says, as Mr. Kaka prepares a treatment of asparagus root and a mix of herbs that includes bryonia, a climber with tuberous roots, and a vine known as tribulus. Ms. Nagar did become pregnant, but miscarried when she developed an infection. Still, the couple plans to consult with Mr. Kaka when they try again in six months. "I have total faith in him," Mr. Nagar says.

Mr. Kaka, like many healers, refuses payment for treatment, although he occasionally takes contributions such as food. Mr. Kaka views his job as holy work. Indeed, he prays before taking plants from the forest, and recites mantras to patients and the medicine as it is prepared. Veer Singh, 35, who traveled from neighboring Maharashtra state, came to see Mr. Kaka after doctors found three large growths on his neck and ulcers in his mouth. He had lost his ability to speak; he saw three different physicians, one of whom thought it might be cancer, requiring expensive treatment. Mr. Singh wanted a second opinion from Mr. Kaka.

Mr. Kaka chants and waves a handful of rice around Mr. Singh's head before dropping the grains into a wicker tray. He shakes them -- if the tray feels heavy, then Mr. Singh's problem is the result of evil spirits; if it's light, then it's a physical problem. Mr. Kaka's "test results" showed his tumor wasn't the result of malevolent ghosts: to cure him, Mr. Kaka wraps bamboo shoots in a leaf of the kachnar, a small deciduous tree with large leaves, and rolls five cigarettes. He tells Mr. Singh to smoke one a day. The bamboo root concoction is what Mr. Kaka commonly gives to patients suffering from cancer -- although usually given internally or mixed as an external ointment. "Smoking (the drug) in this case was appropriate because of the nature of the illness," the healer says.

Two months later, after visiting Mr. Kaka twice, two of Mr. Singh's three lumps are gone, and his speech has returned. A farmer, he looks forward to getting back to his fields. "Seeing my recovery, a number of people from my village have started going to (Mr. Kaka)," Mr. Singh says. "All of my family members are in awe of him now."

Besides unique medical use of herbs, the rarest thing Dr. Acharya has come across in his research so far is the Lal family; three generations of medical healers who live under one roof in Patalkot. The youngest healer of the clan, 26-year-old Raje Lal, has spent the past 13 years learning from his father, Chimmi, and his grandfather, Monje, rather than leaving the tribe like most men his age have. "We hate leaving the valley . . . I want to stay and keep making medicine that helps the people here," Raje says.

They treat up to six Patalkot families a day.

For six-and-a-half years, Dr. Acharya traveled four hours across the bumpy 80-kilometer road between Patalkot and his hometown, Chhindwara, where he studied and taught botany and microbiology at a small college. He learned the local language to build trust among the xenophobic medicine men, and hiked up and down steep, rocky ravines of the 79-square-kilometer valley to catalog more than 500 medicinal plants and more than 200 tribal treatments. He is drawn by the challenge of trying to substantiate whether any of the herbs stand up to tribal claims that they can effectively treat hundreds of disorders. Among the remedies are a concoction of mango bark and the bark of jamun, an evergreen tree, that alleviates menstrual pains, and a cure for diarrhea made from jangli kacharia, a type of climbing ivy; the root of indravan, commonly known as bitter apple; and the bark of cheeval, a rare perennial climber that's native to the area.

Dr. Acharya doesn't yet know what works and what doesn't. But laboratory tests he performed on a Gond remedy for ringworm suggest the Patalkot bhumkas may be on to something. The victim of a case of ringworm, Dr. Acharya tried a tribal remedy of marigold leaves -- and it cleared the fungal skin disease within a few days. So he took the concoction to a laboratory and tested it against three antifungal drugs on the market. He found it of equal or superior efficacy.

On this steamy day in the valley, Dr. Acharya is trying to coax another secret from Monje Lal, head of the Lal family.

"The forest medicinal plants are much better than Western medicine," says Mr. Lal, as he shows Dr. Acharya a root called kallaputa, an annual that's found in dense forests and that Bharia healers use to treat malaria, a disease that the World Health Organization estimates kills three million people globally each year. "Western medicine treats symptoms," Mr. Lal contends. "Herbal medicine cures disease from the root."

Kevin Voigt is a Hong Kong-based writer.