Herbs, Himalaya and Biodiversity
Ever since life began on Earth, one thing that has been most rai intrinsic to it has been the growth of biodiversity in plants, animals and micro-organisms. The question of mutation, evolution and adaptation of gene varieties has constituted the exclusive domain of millions of years of ongoing experimentation, and one of the most productive laboratories has been the Himalaya.
In this experimentation there are no donors, no multinational sponsors and no directors of research. And yet it has yielded tens of millions of varieties of species of living organism. With the entry of the human race into the picture, human economic activities led to a considerable loss of the world’s total biodiversity. Over the last half-century human scientific activity has created a parallel laboratory to undertake genetic engineering— which makes it possible to transfer genes artificially between species, create new species of plants, animals or micro-organisms. This laboratory does have donors, multinationals and directors of research who have access to and claims over the new gene varieties through what has come to be known as Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
One of the most remarkable uses of plant and animal-based biodiversity has been in medicine. The Ayurvedic school of medicine uses about 1400 medicinal plants, mostly from Himalayan forests and meadows. More than 5100 species of plants are used in the Chinese medical system. Modem science and technology has also depended upon this bounty of nature and “one-fourth of all prescriptions dispensed in the USA contain active ingredients from plants and 3000 antibiotics are derived from micro-organisms.” All the twenty best-selling drugs in the United States contain compounds extracted from plants, microbes and animals.
The combined sale of these, according to an estimate, is in the order of U$ 10 billion. The potential of the use of biodiversity in world health is clear from the fact that 75 percent of the world population still depends on natural biodiversity for health care through indigenous systems of medicine. Himalayan medicinal plants play a central role in global health care not only by providing the resource base for Ayurvedic, Tibetan and Chinese medicines, but also through the widespread export of natural plant materials from the nooks and crannies of this great mountain system to the industrially advanced countries. The growing demand and profit-maximising ways of exploitation has pushed many important medicinal plants of the Himalaya to the brink of extinction.
The Convention on Biodiversity, signed in Rio during the Earth Summit by about 150 heads of government (excluding US President George Bush) is a major global instrument to ensure future use, preservation and conservation of the rich gift of biodiversity through human efforts. The Convention has direct implications for Himalayan medicinal plants and their uses in the global pharmaceutical industry.
It is because of the extremely quick changes in the micro- climate due to altitude and aspect that the Himalaya has provided the ecological niche for such rich biodiversity. The spatial closeness of diverse micro-climatic patterns has led to quicker diversification in the gene pool. And biodiversity has the prospects of providing the single resource through which global food and drug production can be largely dominated_ Technologies like the recombinant DNA method are mainly available to the few countries of the North identified as the G-7. The most important raw materials on which these technologies can be profitably applied are mostly available in the G-77 states of the South, including all Himalayan countries.
At the centre of the biodiversity negotiations is the question of how much of modem technology will be shared between the G-7 and the G-77, and how much of the gene pool will the G-7 be given access-to by the countries of the South. The inability of President Bush to sign the Biodiversity Convention cannot he delinked from the financial interests of the American pharmaceutical industry.
While the North was hesitant to share the technologies in its hands, the South led by India and China, successfully negotiated to ensure national rights over biodiversity: The North tried its best to get biodiversity declared as a global heritage, while the South bargained for higher control over any genetic engineering product made by the North with the help of the gene pool of the South. However, the South has a problem. In order to get full advantage of the Biodiversity Convention, it must have full knowledge of the gene pool and protect it from illegal extraction. The increased Northern interest in research on biodiversity and funding of protected areas in the South cannot. be taken merely as an expression of altruism.
There is ‘gold’ in the thick undergrowth of the natural forests of the Himalaya. The Convention gives exclusive rights to the regional countries for the use of this ‘gold. There is a chance that research and action on biodiversity will be reexamined, especially because a great deal of interest is rooted in the industrially advanced countries. The US. not having signed the treaty but having sponsored a great deal of research and protection of biodiversity, is obviously at the centre of public criticism. It is now time that the Biodiversity Convention be used as a guide to examine and monitor the conservation and research projects on biodiversity of the South which are being supported by the funds of the North. This would go a long way to protect the poor farmers and villagers of the Himalayan region from being robbed of their great gene bank.
Bandyopadhyay is a mountain ecologist.