Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

Q&A: Plants Know No Frontiers, They Grow Everywhere

Nasseem Ackbarally interviews AMEENAH GURIB-FAKIM

PORT-LOUIS, Sep 21 2009 (IPS) - Ameenah Gurib-Fakim has spent the last two decades travelling among the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean studying plants.

Mauritian scientist Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was awarded the African Union Women Scientist Regional Award 2009 this month. Credit:  Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

Mauritian scientist Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was awarded the African Union Women Scientist Regional Award 2009 this month. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

And now the Mauritian scientist has been awarded the African Union Women Scientist Regional Award 2009 this month for her scientific achievement and contribution through science to the socio-economic development of Africa.

This competition is meant to support the use and development of science in Africa.

For the past 20 years, Gurib-Fakim has worked on medicinal and aromatic plants in Mauritius and the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean. She has published several books and received a number of international awards for her works.

Nasseem Ackbarally talked to Gurib-Fakim on her research work, on intellectual property rights, on how Africa is faring in this field and also how the continent can reap from economic benefits out of its biodiversity.

IPS: What has been the outcome of your research over the past twenty years? AMEENAH GURIB-FAKIM: My major contribution has been the substantive documentation that I have (written on the) medicinal and aromatic plants of Mauritius and the other islands of the Indian Ocean.

But particularly for Mauritius and Rodrigues in as much as the very first documentation was made almost 200 years ago. I have shown through my documentation that there has been an increase in the use of indigenous plants in a wide range of forms like medicines, cosmetics, food, dyes, and others and that these plants form part of the flora and fauna of our islands and, of course, of the local heritage.

By so doing, I have put at the disposal of the government a very important tool for (the) patenting of future plants and plant products emanating from the Mauritian biodiversity.

IPS: Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regarding plants constitutes a major issue. What is happening on this front in Africa? AGF: The whole legacy of developing countries has been relooked (at) through the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD). Unfortunately, the CBD has no enforcement power. But it has been a very important tool in raising awareness of countries that there is an IPR issue.

(It has made countries aware) that they have got sovereign rights on their biodiversity and that if they play their cards right, they can derive substantial benefits from it.

In terms of awareness, for example, countries have been trying desperately to put their laws in harmony with those of the World Trade Organisation and to make them TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) compliant. So if they are to develop anything from their biodiversity in the future the legal framework would be there.

But, unfortunately, a lot of countries in the developing world have not been moving fast enough on conservation issues. Therefore there is a loss of biodiversity to firms and institutions that are less scrupulous in terms of addressing the prime concern of intellectual property of countries.

IPS: Why do you think Africa is failing to reap the benefits from their rights on their valuable plants? AGF: Today, Africa contributes 25 percent in terms of genetic diversity in the world trade. This is a very substantial output from this continent. But Africa loses out in terms of adopting the same approach as regards the development of drugs in the continent.

For example, there is no legal requirement for the development of drugs emanating from African plants. Researchers and scientists have been very keen on publishing everything and putting it in the public domain. Once it is in the public domain, patenting becomes almost impossible. From this point of view, Africa has lost out and has not been able to harness its biodiversity to its best advantage.

IPS: Is there anything that can be done now? AGF: Africans have to have their governments recognising traditional medicine. There should be a two-prong approach – one is to isolate the molecule and test it for its potential as per the exigencies of the pharmaceutical industry.

The other is validate herbal remedies by taking the traditional recipes, checking and confirming its scientific components and be able to say that they are as good as allopathic medicine from the West. Even scientists and doctors are increasingly realising that sometimes the standards of extracts have much more benefits than the isolated molecules.

If African countries are to (develop) fast in this field, they’ll have to validate traditional herbal extracts because there is big money in this. This will also have a big impact on agriculture, which is very problematic on the continent because of several reasons including climate change.

The farmer would benefit as well as the healers and also the common man in getting safe and cheap medication which we must not forget is in line with the African culture. Both the cultural and economic aspects would thus be addressed.

Again, documentation would be required and we have to ensure that whatever is being produced on the continent is up to world standard so that the medication could also be exported. This is where the money will flow back into the continent.

IPS: Can useful medicines and products be developed in Africa? AGF: I am the chairperson of the Association of African Medicinal Plants Standards (AAMPS) that is working on the standardisation of herbal remedies that will soon publish the African pharmacopeia. This will not only provide the recipes, the benefits, the pharmacology, the toxicology, the side-effects but more importantly, it will put a big focus on the trading standards.

Until the farmer does not produce according to the norms of what is sought by the principal consumer in Europe and the United States, he’ll not be able to sell (his product). This is an area where we are putting lots of energy in terms of providing the farmers with the trading standards in order to reap the benefits.

IPS: Are there not too many external interests preventing African countries from doing something? AGF: Health is a national issue and each country will have to relook at itself and analyse how best they can derive benefits from their own biodiversity by providing products that are compatible with the norms. This is the area where countries can compete with each other based on the same biodiversity but, of course, providing the good products.

IPS: How do you see the future of Africa? AGF: The future is good for Africa. I am very positive about it. I travel a lot in the continent and I see much progress has been done and is made increasingly.

Africans are more and more focused on all aspects that will bring them revenue and benefits for their populations.

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