Protecting What is Ours
By Vimal Khawas
From The Statesman, India, 25 December 2004

Diversity of biological organisms is a crucial component in the livelihood of the
poor. . . .  The Eastern Indian Himalaya has been identified as one of the 25 global hotspots in terms of biodiversity. A part of this system Darjeeling- Sikkim Himalaya has tremendous biological diversity. Its complex terrain system, high humidity, varied aspects and abruptness of altitudinal variation are a few important factors that contribute to the immense wealth of biological resources of more than 6000 species of flowering plants, 500 species of birds, about 400 species of butterflies, 350 species of ferns and allies, more than 238 species of bamboos, 450-500 species of orchids, 144 species of mammals, and many species of reptiles. Thus, Darjeeling and Sikkim's biodiversity contributes significantly to the country's ecological heritage and to the global and national ecological balance.

Over time the region has evolved various traditional knowledge pertaining to its rich bio resources and their practices. These practices have a strong base in the socio-religious system native to the region and have been evolved over 100s of years. However, we are still to document the traditional knowledge bases of Darjeeling and Sikkim. For instance, there are thousands of plants that the hill tribes in the region have been traditionally using for the medicinal purposes and such knowledge is the product of a long period of evolution in the area. Further, the spiritual aspect locally called Jhar Phuk has supported the traditional medicinal practices over the years and often have proved effective in many cases; there are ample examples when the snake bite, jaundice or fractured bones have been healed with the help of traditional medicinal plants supported by Jhar Phuk. These hill people also have their own agricultural practices, crop varieties, and water harvesting practices. They have also evolved rich knowledge with respect to their fauna; for instance a mammal locally called Dumsi is believe to have great medicinal value, there are many such animals with immense medicinal value that are confined to the knowledge of the handful of the locals. All these traditional knowledge bases have not been borrowed by the tribal of these hills from the other places but evolved by them through the experiences of several years; hence they are their original assets.

A case of Biopiracy in Sikkim was reported in July 2001. According to the department of information and public relation, government of Sikkim, two foreign nationals were arrested for trying to smuggle out moths and beetles from the Khanchendzonga National Park. They were caught red handed with more than 1000 specimens of these insects and tools used. They were booked under Section 35(6) of the of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and kept in judicial custody for more than a month. Subsequently after a detailed investigation a complaint (charge sheet) was filed. The case was later Transferred to Lok Adalat and subsequently compounded and all seized items confiscated.

Mention should be made at this point that concerns are expressed in many quarters that the introduction of Intellectual Property Rights, under the aegis of World Trade Organisation, in the biological resources including agriculture may lead to erosion of biological diversity of many bio-resource zones. Further, since the Marrakech Agreement following the Uruguay Round (1994) there has been a mad rush from the large multinational firms to collect germ plasm of wild plants and animal varieties of rich bio- resource zones of the southern world. The Uruguay Round (1994) of the GATT, which gave birth to WTO, talks of globalisation and privatisation of resources as well as maximum deregulation and de-bureaucratisation to motivate the private sector particularly MNCs.

As a founder member of the GATT India is obliged to follow the rules and regulation as led down in World Trade Organisation. The provision of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in WTO has aggravated the bio-diversity of the third world. High bio-diversity regions in the tropics have been worst affected in this respect. The developed countries through their MNCs have at many times, exploited rich biological diversity and the wide genetic variability of bio zones in the south. Such process of transferring of biological wealth along with the traditional knowledge (evolved by the indigenous people of the area over centuries) without paying for it has come to be known as Biopiracy.

We need not go far to seek the example in this regard. India itself has a bitter experience with respect to Biopiracy. Piracy of Neem (neem oil is a well known pesticide in many parts of India developed and evolved through our own traditional knowledge over 100s of years), Basmati Rice (a rice with a global fame has been traditionally cultivated in India and Pakistan) and Turmeric locally called Haldi (with its traditional root in India) by the MNCs of USA and their subsequent spread in the global market is sufficient enough to make us understand the vulnerability of our rich bio-resources and traditional knowledge.

In this connection, India could not contest its claim on these bio-resources, and tell the world that they are her traditional resources and that her ancestors evolved their uses experiencing over the thousands of years, as India had no documented proof for the same. India could, however, win the suit in case of patenting of wound healing properties of turmeric, as there was documented proof for this in India. Much traditional knowledge in India including that of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya is not documented and transmitted orally from generation to generation. This indigenous knowledge is of immense importance and the intellectual property rights (IPRs) need to be protected in the context of the globalisation and property rights particularly in the context of the standards and principals as laid down in the GATT/WTO.

Not enough attention has been given to the importance of protecting the indigenous intellectual property rights by the decision makers of the region, whose traditional knowledge has often been the sources of products introduced into the international market. Globalization and privatisation of natural resources if throws before us economic opportunities it equally puts us into global intellectual property risks. Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas needs to identity both these opportunities and risks and proceed cautiously in the process of development. In this connection mention should be made that Sikkim Biodiversity Act, 2003 is on the anvil in consonance with the Central Act to ensure that the state derives maximum benefit from conserving its biodiversity while at the same time protecting the traditional knowledge of the people. The state government also assures of taking necessary legal measures to protect its biodiversity and natural resources under the Patent Regime and Intellectual Property Rights.

Important decision steps of the planners and policy makers in Darjeeling and Sikkim, in this regard, in the next few years should be Formation of Biodiversity Conservation Committee consisting of interdisciplinary experts. Documentation and codification of all the medicinal plants with full description of their traditional practices across the Sikkim and Darjeeling Himalaya. Documentation of traditional medico-spiritual practices in the region along with the extent of their contribution in the health status, their advantages and disadvantages. Documentation of the traditional knowledge with respect to the fauna in the region in the context of their medicinal, economical and environmental values. Proper documentation of the flora, fauna and their traditional practices although a difficult task is not impossible. Moreover, it will not only check the economic exploitations of our biological resources and traditional knowledge bases but also offer us to claim our ownership of the natural economically important germplasms.

(The writer is an executive member of Hill and Mountain Forum, New Delhi and managing editor, The Himalayan.)