India to patent tribal medicinal knowledge

India will document and protect tribal knowledge of medicinal plants Copyright: Flicr/McGarry

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[CHENNAI] India plans to scientifically validate and patent traditional knowledge of medicinal plants in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, home to some of the world’s oldest tribes.

As a first step, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is preparing a community biodiversity register (CBDR) of medicinal plants used by local communities, including threatened indigenous tribes such as the Jarawas, Onges and Sentinelese.

Several original island species of plants and animals are also threatened due to intrusions by a mix of people — rice farmers, timber merchants, academics and defence personnel.

A 2010 UNESCO dossier on the islands noted that the Jarawa Reserve, an area of exceptional biodiversity, has become open to intrusion with “enormous implications for both the biodiversity of the reserve and the Jarawas themselves.” 

The Asian tsunami, triggered by the 26 December 2004 earthquake, devastated the Andaman and Nicobar islands, tilting the archipelago to submerge some areas and lift others. 

Under a US$ 84,000 project, ICMR’s centre on the islands started a CBDR in September 2010 to document traditional herbal cures for 34 illnesses.

So far, the CBDR has listed 124 plants, after ICMR scientists interviewed 42 traditional knowledge healers from 11 of the 15 villages on the Car Nicobar group of islands.

“The registry has details of the traditional healthcare practitioners, the names of the plants (tribal and botanical), description of the parts of the plant used, type of preparation, mode of use and usage for various diseases,” Paluru Vijayachari, ICMR regional director, told SciDev.Net

“The register also contains the photographs of the practitioners and herbaria of the plants,” Vijayachari said. ICMR would keep copies with the original practitioner, the office of the tribal council, and the regional centre.

Vijayachari said that after documentation ICMR scientists would test for “the efficacy of different active components of the plants”.

ICMR would also help local tribal communities patent preparations and remedies and safeguard their intellectual property rights.