In Africa, New Moves to Protect Traditional Knowledge
In Africa, New Moves to Protect Traditional Knowledge
By Wairagala Wakabi
It was the case with genes from an Ethiopian weed that resist a common plant virus, a Ugandan herb that helps reduce pain in childbirth and a cactus that kept Kalahari Desert dwellers from going hungry for the last several centuries. Western companies have long used traditional African knowledge to develop drugs and other products that benefit Western consumers and corporations, without providing any acknowledgement or financial payback to those who first developed these natural and intellectual resources.
Now, in the shadow of recent battles over loosening patent restrictions to produce cheaper AIDS drugs, Africa feels it has offered too much to Western pharmaceutical industries without getting anything in return. In response to this inequity, a number of countries, including Uganda and South Africa, are creating laws that will make it illegal for anybody to lift what is considered a locally cultivated knowledge or process in medicine.
Under the aegis of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Africa is asking that those outside the continent pay for the expropriation of its indigenous knowledge, whether in the form of medicine, music or artifacts, an outflowing that has been going on ever since explorers from Europe "discovered" Africa. Perfectly willing to plunder the continent for its riches from human beings on down the Western colonial mindset considered African ideas and inventions to be fair game as well.
With the recent return of human remains - the notable "Hottentot Venus" Sara Baartman and "El Negro," an anonymous man held for years in a Spanish museum and a new respect for African cultural products from photography to painting, it might seem that such a process had been reversed. How much theft of African traditional knowledge is still going on?
"A lot," says Kifle Shenkoru, head of the African desk at WIPO, which is headquartered in Geneva. "The theft of intellectual property from Africa is rampant in the West. They copy and make money out of it."
One example, says Mr. Shenkoru, was the use of South African color patterns by British Airways. The airline was taken to court and had to pay compensation. "Since these rights were not protected and since they did not recognize them early enough, people just snapped the knowledge as we watched," says Mr. Shenkoru.
Another prominent example involves the use of herbal medicine widely used in Uganda to stimulate uterine contractions during delivery. A scientist working in 1971 isolated the ingredient, Oxytocin, which was subsequently used all over the world in its synthetic form, Pitocin. The Ugandan traditional healers who offered their knowledge to the scientist were never acknowledged.
The cactus used by the Khoisan people in South Africa for millennia to combat hunger while on long hunting expeditions has been picked up by a Western pharmaceutical company, to be used as an additive in a weight-reducing drug.
In Ethiopia, a weed left to grow with crops in the field was found to fight rust, a virus that decimates wheat and other grain crops. Genes from the weed were isolated and planted into wheat, resulting in increased wheat supply. Nothing was passed on to the Ethiopian farmers, whose country ironically suffers from chronic famine.
Currently the United Kingdoms Royal Botanical Gardens is seeking to collect seeds, mainly from dry lands in Tanzania, to be kept at their gene bank under its Millennium Seed Bank Project initiative. The New York Botanical Garden of the United States is working on a similar project with the Departments of Agronomy and Botany at the Free State University in South Africa.
"We need to set the necessary procedures and to have the appropriate office in place," warned Dr. William Mziray, head of the National Herbarium of Tanzania. "Otherwise it is likely that our biological resources will be exploited without any gains on our side, and at some point a number of them will be depleted."
While Africa is just beginning to protect itself from such exploitation, it has some powerful allies in the fight. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) restricts researchers from entering any country without prior informed consent, permits, export licenses and phytosanitary certificates to carry out their intended activities. And Doctors Without Borders (Medicines sans Frontiers, or MSF as it is known internationally), along with other independent non-governmental organizations, have been battling for price concessions on drugs produced in the West but badly needed in Africa.
A basic inequality exists between those who provide the resources and those who reap the benefits, some experts say. The tropics, in which more than half of African countries are located, is said to contain more than 75 percent of ingredients used today in pharmaceutical research, but less than one percent of money spent on global drug research goes toward treating and curing tropical diseases.
"Of the 1223 molecules produced in the drug industry since 1947, only 13 benefit tropical disease," said Spring Gombe, an MSF official in Uganda. The worst case, she says, is sleeping sickness, a disease that six million people in central Africa are at risk of contracting (some 0.3 million are already sick). The only drug available is Melarsopol, developed during World War II, but it is so toxic that it kills five per cent of the patients treated with it.
It was only recently that Aventis, a pharmaceutical giant, found out that one element of Melarsopol, in a paste form, helps eliminate facial hair in women. Sensing a profitable new use for the drug, Aventis carried out research in making the drug less toxic.
Meanwhile, Africa is beginning to exploit its own resources. Research departments have been founded in universities and governmental chemists in various countries have begun to research local drugs for the treatment of many illnesses. Traditional and Modern Health Practitioners Together Against AIDS and other diseases (Theta), a regional task force to co-ordinate use of traditional medicine in treating AIDS in East and Southern Africa was established in Kampala, Uganda, two years ago and has since registered successes in some of its researches.
In Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda, researchers have reported encouraging results in using traditional medicine to control AIDS and HIV, says Gerald Katusabe, the coordinator of Theta. Theta activities are supported by MSF-Switzerland, the Rockefeller Foundation, the UK's Department for International Development, the Danish International Development Agency, UNAIDS and Oxford University in England.
But the international stage must be set to respect such research. African trade officials want protections for indigenous knowledge to be incorporated into Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Services, or TRIPS, an international treaty governing patents and licensing of new technology.
"We need a specific statute for addressing this issue so that we can enforce the TRIPS agreement when someone comes into the country to appropriate indigenous knowledge," said a Ministry of Tourism and Trade official in Kenya. "At the moment, we do not have the capacity for protecting traditional medicine."
Success will depend on how the law is implemented. It is well known that herb hunters go to the continent under the guise of tourists, walk the beaches and forests, talk to traditional medical practitioners and carry plants and notebooks away with them. They then patent their "inventions," while the people who discovered and developed the technologies receive nothing. In part, this is because of a cultural difference in the attitude toward sharing knowledge.
"There are a number of researches going on in Kampala," says a researcher in Uganda. "But we have not made any moves to patent because under the traditional system, medicines are meant for people who need them."
The African desk at WIPO is helping African ministries of trade carry out research into how much expropriation takes place on the continent, a first step to beginning to reap some benefits from traditional knowledge.
"The lack of adequate information about intellectual property systems in least developed countries has led many people to the conclusion that intellectual property is a vehicle for protecting foreign interests," said Shenkoru.
He added, though, that while profit hunters may not care about the poor, they do bring in foreign direct investment. "They transfer technology and they create jobs, and we can take advantage of this," he said. "We should first invite them in and then negotiate our rights later."
Traditional medical practitioners, once a maligned group as Western missionaries equated them with witch doctors, are now undergoing a renaissance of respect. In Kenya, a new law requires them to register with the state, a move that is expected to raise their profiles in the eyes of Western-trained medical counterparts.
"We are not going for witchcraft but coordinating research," said Katusabe. "Traditional medicine may not be a hot thing today but tomorrow it will be. It has largely been ignored and unexplored, but it has a lot of potential."
First published: March 5, 2002