The Jeevani elixir of the Kani tribes of Kerala and their Intellectual Property (IP) rights
By D.P. Agrawal

The Kani tribals know of a wild plant, which can provide almost unlimited energy for trekking through the forests for hours together. The Kanis have an extremely rich and unique Traditional Knowledge about the use of the resources, particularly the biological resources around them. The Kani tribals belong to a traditionally nomadic community, who now lead a primarily settled life in the forests of the Agast-Hymalai hills of the Western Ghats, a mountain range along south-western India, in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. The Kanis, numbering around 16,000, live in several tribal hamlets, each consisting of 10 to 20 families dispersed in and around the forest areas of Thiruvanathapuram district. The Kanis are the traditional collectors of non-timber forest products from the forest.

Mashelkar recalls that in December 1987, a team of scientists working on the All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology (AICRPE) led by P. Pushpangadan was trekking through the tropical forests hills. They were surveying the Kani tribal settlements and got exhausted after a while. This team was accompanied by a few Kani tribesmen as guides, who surprisingly remained energetic and agile. They occasionally would munch some small blackish fruits. One of them offered a few of these fruits to the team pointing out that if they ate those, they could go on trekking without fatigue. And that is what happened to the AICRPE team when they ate these fruits! This 'magical' plant was subsequently identified as Trichopus zeylanicus ssp. travancoricus.

Detailed chemical and phamacological investigations showed that the leaf of the plant contained various glycolipids and some other non-steroidal compounds with profound adaptogenic and immmuno-enhancing properties. The fruits showed mainly anti-fatigue properties. The Tropical Botanical Gardens Research Institute (TBGRI) was successful in developing a scientifically validated and standardized herbal drug, based on the tribal knowledge. The drug was named as Jeevani and was released for commercial production in 1995 by Arya Vaidya Pharmacy. While transferring the technology for production of the drug to the pharmaceutical firm, TBGRI agreed to share the license fee and royalty with the tribal community on a fifty-fifty basis.

The prime concern of the tribals in the beginning was to evolve a viable mechanism for receiving such funds. With the help of TBGRI, some government officials and NGOs, the tribals formed a registered trust. About 60% of the Kani families of Kerela are members of this trust. From February 1999, the amount due to them has been transferred to this trust with an understanding that the interest accrued from this amount alone can be used for the welfare activities of the Kani tribe.

It is heartening to note that TGBRI has trained 25 tribal families to cultivate the plant around their dwellings in the forest. In the first year itself, each family earned about Rs. 8,000 on sale of leaves from cultivation of T. zeylanicus in half-hectare area by each family. But unfortunately the forest department objected to the cultivation with the plea that the tribals might remove the plants from the natural population of the species in the forests and thereby make it endangered. This problem has now been resolved and the forest department has recently approved the cultivation of this plant. Mashelkar informs that it is significant to note that while the issue of material transfer and benefit sharing was discussed and debated after Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), India has already pioneered one of the first models (Mashelkar 2001).

Reference

Mashelkar, R.A., 2001. Intellectual property rights and the Third World. Current Science 81 (8): 955.