"Descendants of God's Physician Share Their Secrets"

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Meenakshi Ganguly/TrivandrumThe Kani people belong to one of the poorest tribes in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Rain-forest dwellers, they live in flimsy shacks, sleeping each night with the fear that a passing herd of wild elephants could trample them to death. But even in poverty, the Kanis haven't forgotten their mythical past. They believe they are the descendants of Agastya, chief physician to the gods, and that his wisdom of healing has passed down to them through the ages.This wisdom may turn out to be the Kanis' modern-day salvation. One of their medicinal discoveries has been developed as an energy powder by a team of Indian scientists, who have agreed to pay the tribe a portion of royalties they receive from commercial drug companies. This novel agreement is viewed by many conservationists as a model for how both sides can benefit when researchers agree to abide by the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and share profits with indigenous people.It all began around 10 years ago when two tribesmen, Mallan Kani and Kutty Mathan Kani, were hired as guides for botanists from the Trivandrum-based Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) on a research trip in the coastal hills. The trek was arduous--the hills are known for their gluttonous leeches--and the exhausted scientists kept pausing for breath. Their guides, though, were unfazed by the exertions. Asked why, the tribesmen produced a stash of pale-green berries and offered them around. I felt a sudden flush of energy and strength, recalls S. Rajasekharan, an ethnomedicine expert. He and his colleagues decided to check the plant for its medicinal properties.PAGE 1  |  
Initially, the Kanis were reluctant to identify the plant because of traditional taboos on sharing tribal secrets. But the biologists eventually persuaded them to do so, arguing that the imparted knowledge would help thousands of unhappy and ill people. They also promised that if the plant were put to commercial use, the Kanis would share any profits. Says the institute's director, P. Pushpangadan: We knew that we were doing the right thing.Local people eventually identified the plant as Aarogyappacha, a previously unknown subspecies of the variety Trichopus zeylanicus, a type of shrub that grows only in the hills of coastal Kerala state. Chemical and pharmacological tests proved that the fruit has anti-fatigue properties. In 1996, after eight years of research, TBGRI produced a drug called Jeevani (life source in Sanskrit), which is said to reduce stress and exhaustion. An Indian pharmaceutical company paid the institute $25,000 for the formula and agreed to hand over 5% of all future sales. The scientists decided to transfer to the Kanis half of that payout, reserving the rest for the institute. That proved very difficult. They are scattered in the forest and live in tiny hamlets, says Pushpangadan. They don't even have a bank account. As soon as other tribesmen heard about the money, a flood of claimants turned up. Kutty Mathan and Mallan were accused of bartering away their Kani heritage and were nearly banished from the tribe.After much negotiation, the government-funded TBGRI this year set up a trust fund. Membership is open to all adult Kani men, who are to elect nine people annually to administer the trust, with the two guides and a TBGRI representative acting as permanent trustees. The money can be used only for community welfare programs--the Kanis have little access to schools or medical centers. The inflow of cash--expected to be several thousand dollars a year--should help prevent many Kanis from leaving the forests and landing in India's slums. Marvels Kutty Mathan: We never thought these plants were so valuable. Most of the chieftains have approved the trust, but the money has yet to be transferred. What's needed is the government's permission. That could take time, plus a strong dose of Jeevani to energize the bureaucrats.  |  2