Call to Protect our Kothalahimbutu

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Letter allowing Japanese firm to cultivate the medicinal plant breaks the law, says environmentalists 

The Environmentalists last week alleged that the permission given by the secretary of Agrarian and Wildlife Ministry Udeni Wicremasinghe to grow and harvest Kothalahimbutu in a private property is illegal. This letter was addressed to the Board of Investment (BOI) giving permission to a Japanese based company to grow Kothalahimutu for export purposes.

Letter says that approval is given in order to ensure the protection of Kothalahimbutu trees, harvesting allowed only from private lands and planting, harvesting, drying, transporting, storage should be carried out under the close supervision and prior approval of the Conservator General of Forest. But the veteran Environmental Activist; lawyer Jagath Gunawardane says this approval is a violation of FFPO. Kothalahimbutu is protected under section 42 of FFPO schedule 8, so no one can harm, destroy or damage Kothalahimbutu irrespective of whether it is grown on one’s own property or wild. Hence it is clear that the permission given in the letter directly contradicts with law and

Kothalahimbutu raided by customs biodiversity unit

hence the permission is null and void before the law. Mr.Gunawardane further said that the letter creates confusion and make a tricky situation because if any person or organization acts upon this letter, he commits an illegal act.

Kothalahimbutu; scientifically classified as Salacia reticulate is a plant that has medicinal values being used in Ayurveda for centuries to treat Diabetics. Scientists tried to separate the active genetic compounds in Kothalahibutu with the intention to make a drug to treat diabetes, creating a big demand. Wild Kothalahimbutu can be mainly found in the dry and intermediate zones of SL. However, Kothalahimbutu is a slow growing plant and it takes about 6 to 7 years to become a reasonably mature that is good for harvesting. Uncontrolled collection of Kothalahimbutu has already depleted its wild populations, and it will be categorized as an endangered plant in Sri Lanka in the upcoming review of the Red list of threatened fauna and flora.

Because it is a slow growing plant, the growers anyway have to wait atleast for 6-7 years for harvesting. So environmentalists are afraid that the permits given for cultivation will be used to legalize the export of wildly collect Kothalahimbutu.

The environmentalists also fear that the Kothalahibutu that will be shipped out may be used for illegal genetic researchers aiming to extract the medicinal compound. The first level of claiming the ownership for a certain active compound is getting it patented and Jagath Gunasekare says there are over 109 patents and pending applications to cover various different compounds in active ingredients and useful properties at different uses and different preparations of Kothalahimbutu. Though Kothalahibutu is native to Sri Lanka, sadly most of these patents give benefits to other countries. Majority of these applications are from Japan and environmentalists fear the new project too could be a way to legalize further biopiracy acts.

The Biodiversity Protection Unit of Customs too has made several raids to stop illegal shipments of Kothalahimbutu that draw high demand. In 1998 a large shipment of 4900 kg of Kothalahimbutu has been raided. Samantha Gunasekara who led custom’s biodiversity protection unit in these raids says that they made detentions of Kothalahimbutu on number of occasions afterward. Mr.Gunaseakare also pointed out that not only Kothalahimbutu, but many other herbal plants are being sent out of the country, so a systematic method is required to curb the problem.

He says that one way to find solution for the problem is to propagate these herbs and farm them for harvesting, but then clear cut laws that has been regulate properly should be implemented. Conservation measures should be implemented for the wild populations and monitoring should be done rigorously. It was in 1992 that the gene piracy came into light with a kothalahimbutu patenting in Japan, but our progress to address the issue is slow. He pointed out that the country should get benefits from its natural resources, but then there should be a mechanism to make sure proper rights of its genetics and other uses should gained to the country. Country should receive due income by exporting them and indegenious knowledge/rights should be safeguarded while the conservation of wild populations should be guaranteed.

Could Access and Benefit Sharing Protocol helps to curb Gene Piracy..?

Gene piracy has been a global problem as genetically rich countries are poor and rich countries are always on the look for access these. But in most of the cases, it is the poor countries that ends up in the loosing side due to lack of proper procedures like in the case of Kothalahimbutu where Sri Lanka has lost the rights to these patented genetic compounds elsewhere in the world.

However, it is also important that we value our Genetic Resources and use them to get benefits wherever possible in sustainable way. Perhaps the compound to make a drug to cancer or HIV could be hidden in our unique genetic resource like an endemic plant. So if we do not give access to these genetic resources, it will deny the life to some of the patients that otherwise could be saved. But if there is no proper protocol, any party that comes in the research could claim that they own the rights of the research denying benefits for us. So genetic resources are like gems that are hidden underground and also the research process could be a double-edged sword.

A global mechanism too has been adopted in 2010 in Nagoya by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) namely Access and Benefit Sharing protocol (ABS) with the aim to provide a mechanism to address this issue of genetic material sharing transparently. ABS aims at bringing back benefits to the community or country where these genetic materials have been taken away. According to the process, the party who wants to use the genetic materials needs to have prior consent from the community or the country for using them and then give agreed benefits to the society. If a party fails to do so, there are mechanisms to act on.

However, this process is technically very difficult as genetics is complex in nature. Some activists also fear that the rich countries could twist the protocol in ways to benefit them. But it is a commendable first step to address the issue globally as many sees this ABS protocol.

This is a new protocol which needs 56 countries to get it into sanctioning stage. The Sri Lankan parliament has approved the signing of this new ABS protocol, however the time has lapsed for us to sign it on initial stage which we could properly observed the benefits and disadvantages before sanctioning it. Sri Lanka still can sign this ABS protocol entering to it directly by ratifying the protocol and perhaps the time has come to initiate a national level debate to take solid action to curb Gene-piracy while finding ways to use our genetic materials with safeguarding the countries interest.

ABS protocol in brief

Published on 15.04.2012 on SundayTimes

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