The (Bio) Pirates of the Flora
It is serendipitous that I get to draft this piece during the wonderful time of the year when men get to let their facial manes grow. It is Movember! We shall get back to this. First, allow me to tell you a story from my time as an intern forester at Nabkoi Forest Station.
It is 2012. My classmate, Nelson, and I have been posted to Nabkoi Forest for our industrial attachment. There we met this eccentric forester who was gracious enough to host us in his cabin. One fateful evening, as we were thinking of what to have for our supper (the arrangement was simple, Nelson cooks, I clean), our host came to the cabin with two things in his paper bag: mushrooms and some leaves and tree bark. He hands the mushrooms to Nelson and tells him to prepare them. At this point, both Nelson and I look at him inquisitively, Nelson wondering how to cook them, me wondering where he got them. So he tells Nelson to prepare them as he would a meat stew. I asked him, “Where did you get them?”
The mushrooms? He replied,
Yeah, where did you get them?
Oh, from the forest!
Wait, what?!! Do you mean to say these are wild mushrooms?
Yes, Andrew! What’s the problem?
How do we know they are safe?
“So long as the gills are not black, we are good. Oh, and remember to tell Nelson to boil some water. I need to put these (pointing to the leaves and bark) in warm water. I have a cold”. He told me this as he picked up his newspaper and moved on with life.
And who am I to question such knowledge? Who am I to question the man’s experience? I gave the instructions to Nelson and, having not eaten mushrooms at this point, I was looking forward to dinner. I was all in for this experience. Months later, I learned that wild mushrooms can kill you if you ingest the wrong ones. So keep off the wild mushrooms! According to the forester, using tree bark and leaves, the concoction produced a remedy for the common cold and 79 other diseases. And this truly piqued my interest. According to him, he sourced all the leaves and bark from the forest, and this was based on the knowledge of the locals. They assured him that if he drank the concoction he would have an unblocked nose, a good night’s rest, and a detoxed body the next day. Sure enough, all this happened the next day. However, he told us that his ethnic group has used those leaves to treat other ailments, but he emphasized that the cure for all is in nature. And this is true!
Before penning this piece, I asked my mum if they used any “herbal medication aka miti dawa.” She told me that, as kids, they boiled blackjack and bathed in that water to treat measles (none of the siblings corroborated this, but it is mother, so it is true!!). However, during my primary school days, I imbibed the juice from the bark of a neem tree (Mwarubaini). I was told that the tree’s bark treats 40 diseases, and I have only contracted malaria once in my life. I drank copious amounts of that bitter juice, which may explain why I was so unconcerned about trying wild mushrooms.
But it is not only medication, The Turkana uses Esekon (Salvadora persica)as a toothbrush. A tree that has been recommended by the World Health Organisation for oral hygiene. The benefits of flora span beyond curative applications and include preventive ones as well (Esekon is also used to make Topee tokon — a local Turkana cuisine). What’s more impressive is that this knowledge existed before science validated it.
So what’s the kerfuffle?
Well, the simple answer lies in intellectual property. The more complex answer lies in markets. I will attempt to break down both.
If you have been raised or lived in a rural setting, you must have an appreciation for this. You know exactly what plants are needed for the occasion. If someone has the sniffles, you take leaves from plant A. If you have a boil, the bark of plant B. If the cow is giving birth, leaves from plant C. All this comes from the knowledge that has been passed down from generations. It isn’t written, it’s oral or observed, I dare say it is embedded in the culture. So you can imagine my shock when I learned about the attempted patenting of the Kakadu palm in Northern Australia by Mary Kay; The Kakadu palm is a fruit that Aboriginal people have used the fruit and tree for their food and medicine since before colonization. If this went as planned, it would mean that even the local producers (mainly indigenous-led organizations) could only sell to Mary Kay — aka Market solutions.
What is interesting here is that whereas you might think it is a new phenomenon, and might be specific to a particular industry, the truth is that it isn’t. Kenya Wildlife Service took Genencor, a US-based biotech company, to court, over bacteria used to make Demin jeans. The Mamala plant — another case — in the Falealupo rainforest, whose bark contains potential anti-retroviral agents against HIV/AIDS. Falealupo is the reason we have access and benefit-sharing mechanisms under the Convection for Biodiversity (CBD). Another is the case of the rose periwinkle and the Malagasy people.
But I think the kicker of all this is how they “improve” seed species under the guise of food security. This unfortunately starts with the deposition of seeds and information in the FAO seed bank. However, this seed bank is public and doesn’t have legal status, meaning anyone can claim anything. So firms can, pick germplasm, modify, patent, and sell it. The country that deposited the seed will not accrue any benefits from this. Unfortunately, most of these countries are African, and most African countries don’t have agricultural or food laws linked to intellectual property. What’s even worse is that these modified seeds will be sold or find their way back as “superfood.”
The effects on the seed are one, but unfortunately, this eventually causes ripples; smallholder farmers depend on agricultural inputs they can’t afford, below and above ground biodiversity and species variability are compromised, and eventually, you have ugly monocultures. This is all done under the guise of food sovereignty. All this sounds very familiar, Jurassic Park anyone?
While researching this piece, I came to quasi-understand that all this comes from laws and policies. Not just any laws and policies, but the ones we have blindly chosen to adopt. The thinking around biopiracy, bioprospecting or even bio trade (these bios are a bit redundant) can be traced back to colonialism, with formerly colonized countries having many of their resources forcibly removed. Pepper, sugar, coffee, quinine, or rubber did and still do, have a significant impact on the world economies. All of them have a colonial past. At its heart is ownership. Patents and trademarks are hotly contested by multinational companies (because you can trade), but for indigenous groups, owning an evolving organism is illogical.
While efforts have been made to protect plant and animal patent exceptions, much ground remains to be covered, especially in Africa. It is high time we get proactive in ensuring that we protect our own. Kenyans still have a bitter taste when you talk about the Kikoi and how Japan patented a cloth that is ours! AfCFTA is one place we can use to protect our traditional knowledge, but for this to happen, we need to be strategic. Gone are the days when we worked in silos, but it is high time we had environmental delegates when discussing matters of trade and vice versa.
“A sheep is a sheep, but also meat and wool.”
Edgar Dumbarton, Taboo
Policy orients the private sector’s work, and we cannot let this be dictated by one person, but have our interests represented there. Otherwise, all our policies will have profit over people all the time.
The Movember movement is near and dear to me. It was started to raise awareness around Prostate Cancer. While Movember serves as a perfect excuse to avoid the barber, the advancements in prostate cancer prevention over the years are significant, none more so than the use of Prunus africana. This tree happens to grow in Western regions of Kenya and was used to treat various ailments. However, once the medicinal properties were made public, the exploitation began. And you guessed it, with all this none of the benefit trickled back to the community, in some cases you had this thirst lead to deforestation. Such events make me question what movements like Movember help achieve!
As I conclude, knowledge is all around us. The next time you are in the country and learn something about a plant, do not discount that. As you might be thinking of ways to utilize the organism, I challenge you to think of the whole — the community, land, rivers, soil, etc. — to which that organism belongs and how all should benefit from it. Never put profit over people.
With that, Till next time
This piece is late, and for that, I apologize. I had a personal tragedy towards the end of 2021, that didn’t allow me to finish it. Thank you for understanding