Vandana Shiva. © Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva. © Vandana Shiva

India wins landmark battle vs multinational bio-piracy

March 2005

The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is a wide-spread and popular tree throughout South Asia, especially in India, Sri Lanka and Burma. Its many medicinal properties have been known for thousands of years. And yet, the international agro-chemical business has been staking its claims by patenting Neem products since 1985. Indian environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva was willing to challenge the bio-piracy of the behemoths. [1]

Due to its vast spectrum of medicinal uses Neem features in ancient Sanskrit texts and it is called ‘India’s tree of Life’ or, more pragmatically, the ‘village pharmacy’ of South Asia. Neem twigs are known, for example, throughout India as a natural antiseptic toothbrush. Furthermore, Neem trees give shadow, prevent soil erosion, and preparations from Neem seeds can be used as a natural pesticide or fungicide. All in all the tree is so crucial to life that in Indian Hindu villages it is regarded sacred.

Outside those villages, it has been recognized that Neem ‘can have a global impact on some of the world’s greatest problems including malaria, dengue fever, Aids and human population growth’ [2], and the interest of pharmaceutical and agro-chemical giants has long been awakened. In China and Brazil, millions of Neem seedlings are being cultivated each year.

Already in 1995, the European Patent Office (EPO) [why them?] granted a patent to the US Department of Agriculture and chemical giant WR Grace for a method of using Neem tree oil for fungicidal purposes. But an international group led by Dr Vandana Shiva campaigned against the hijacking of ancient indigenous knowledge and finally took the case back to the European Patent Office. ‘We wanted to reveal what bio-piracy is, this patenting of indigenous knowledge and bio-diversity,’ she says. [1] The patent was revoked by EPO, six years after it had been granted, but the legal battle continued, altogether for ten years. The EU Parliament’s Green Party and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) began to challenge the patent too. The final victory is heralded by campaigners as a landmark in the fight to stop big business exploiting plants and genes at the expense of poor people in the developing world. [1]

The next step of the Indian government to counteract the continuing threat of bio-piracy was to set up the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in Delhi. Here, millions of recipes of traditional ayurvedic medicines are translated from ancient texts into modern medical terms and collated into an online library. This database will be made selectively available in different languages to patent offices around the world to enable them to check whether a request for a patent is for a genuinely new use of an ancient medicine that has been known for thousands of years. [2]

video tip: Vandana Shiva: ‘The Future of Food and Seed – Justice, Sustainability and Peace in the 21st Century‘, speech at the Organicology Conference in Portland, Oregon, Feb 28, 2009
video tip: Vandana Shiva on Geo-engineering, TV debate

[1] India wins landmark patent battle, BBC News, 9 March 2005
[2] Anna Horsbrugh Porter, Neem: India’s tree of life, BBC News, 17 April 2006

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