I thank Professor Maurice Iwu for taking out time to shed light on the serious concerns raised in my write –up, “Maurice Iwu and the Sale of Nigeria’s Collective Inheritance.” In the article, attention was called to the patents taken out on numerous Nigerian indigenous pharmacology by Professor Iwu and other scientists and researchers, often in connivance with Western research institutions and pharmaceutical companies.
In his succinctly elucidated response, Professor Iwu echoes what I believe to be the conviction of thousands of other Nigerian and African scientists, who like him, have taken out patent on some form of active molecule derivable from indigenous African pharmacology. That Professor Iwu is a world renowned researcher in the field of Pharmacognosy is in no doubt, should we even restrict our judgement to his professional and well articulated response.
I would have refrained from a further questioning of his eloquent submissions, but, for the fact, that like him, I happen to share the strong conviction that, indeed, younger Nigerian and African scientists must not be misled. I would, however, sharply deviate from Professor Iwu at this point. Professor Iwu chose to respond to my article so that younger scientist may not be “misled into believing that it is wrong to conduct research on natural products and patent the products of such research.” I have chosen to respond to him, so that younger Nigerian scientists will not be misled by their older peers in consolidating a scientific culture that has perpetuated gross underdevelopment and poverty across the continent of Africa. I fear that upcoming researchers, if not shown the right path, would –unintentionally – be misinformed by their senior colleagues in the continuous promotion of the dependency paradigm that has been largely perpetuated in the name of scholarly research, and extolled as achievements.
I would proceed from the most fundamental point raised by Professor Iwu, where he states that “it is not possible to patent natural occurring plants, traditional knowledge or folk medicine.” With the deepest regard for Professor Iwu’s knowledge and academic achievements, I must confess that I find that statement a little disconcerting. It is common knowledge that the agreement of the World Trade Organization under Article 27.3b was the first international instrument to require intellectual property protection for living forms (microorganisms). Under this agreement, scientists have given loose interpretation to the definition of life forms, and have gone ahead to obtain patents on a broad range of seeds, folk medicine and other life forms. The Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, the Convention on Biodiversity and others are all platforms within which nations are seeking to re-negotiate the issues of patents on biological resources.
Can other Nigerians be denied the use of plant resources patented by Professor Iwu and other scientists, I answer firmly in the affirmative, restating my earlier stance. Patents, the like of which Professor Iwu holds, is defined by the World Intellectual Property Organizations as “an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem” It grants the patentee “exclusive right” to the making, suing, selling or offering for sale the product, or process of making the product that is described by the patent claims.”
A good example sheds more light on the global nature of patents; in 1995, two United States Indian scientist sought for and obtained patents for the use of Turmeric in wound healing, just as Professor Iwu obtained patent in 1991 for the medicinal uses of a yam specie found in Nigeria. Turmeric has been in use in India for its wound healing for thousands of years, just as the water yam has been in Nigeria. The patent taken out by the scientists would have, however, denied any other Indian or the Government of India, from benefiting commercially from Turmeric on the global stage, for that specific purpose. On learning of the patent, Government of India filed for independent examination of the patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). After an extensive research including interview with the indigenous communities, USPTO revoked the patent “stating that the claims made in the patent were obvious and anticipated, and agreeing that the use of turmeric was an [Indian] old art of healing wounds.” The Government of India now claims the broad rights over the usage of turmeric for the several purposes for which indigenous Indian communities have long utilized it for.
For the above reason, The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007 and this constitutes a seminal document in the field of traditional knowledge. Article 31 of the declaration states that:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literature and designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions. In conjunction with indigenous peoples, states shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of these rights.
Unfortunately, this well meaning UN text, just as every other UN resolution is, at best, advisory in nature and lacking in enforcement mechanisms. However, it portrays that indigenous communities ought not to be denied of their rights by private individuals who are wont to patent their collective inheritance and benefit exclusively from such.
Aside from the case of the Hoodia drug belonging to the Sans community of Southern Africa, some African countries such as Zimbabwe have taken several Western pharmaceutical companies to court for “patenting a local plant and the traditional knowledge of its use without any reference to Zimbabwe the source of the plant and its use (For further reading on this, See Biopiracy and Biodiversity: Global Exchange as Enclosure. Africa World Press (2007) p. 73).
Professor Iwu in his statement that “[T]he writer seems to have confused scientific patents, ownership assignments and intellectual property rights and benefit sharing,” questions my expertise in commenting on the issue of note. There lies no ambiguity in the terms mentioned. Scientific patents, the kind Professor Iwu holds on eight Nigerian folk medicine is the holding of exclusive rights to a product or process and denial of same to any other entity. Intellectual property rights is the general umbrella under which patent falls, and it also includes copyrights, trademarks, tradesecrets and geographical indication. According to the Conventions on Biodiversity, “benefit sharing involves the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of biodiversity through wide variety of monetary and non-monetary mechanisms, ranging from profit sharing or equitable stakes in the bio-prospecting business, and also technology transfer, training and collaborative research.”
In the Sans case cited in my earlier article, Pfizer and Phytopharm were compelled to enter into a benefit sharing agreement. If Professor Iwu has secured any form of benefit sharing agreement or ownership assignments with any of the global drug research institutions and pharmaceutical companies, for any of Nigeria’s indigenous pharmacology, I plead with him to make such information available in the public domain where it belongs.
Another part of Professor Iwu’s response that I, again, found disconcerting is his claim on Artemisinin. According to him “[I]t may interest the author of that article that many lives probably would have been lost in Nigeria if not for the work at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research that lifted artemisinin isolated from Artemisia annua from a little known Chinese weed used in folk medicine to a modern drug for the treatment of drug resistant malaria in Nigeria.” I wish Professor Iwu would be kind enough to be more specific about his exact work on Artemisinin at the Walter Reed. 100% of literature accessed on Artemisinin (qinghaosu in Chinese) date its recent re-discovery and popularization (it has been used by Chinese healers for millennia in the cure of a wide range of illnesses) to the 1960s by Tu Youyou a Chinese scientist, working in a Chinese army funded research program known as Project 523, for the elimination of malaria in China.
Professor Iwu further states that “our use of plant resources does not and cannot deny Ms Chika Ezeanya or any other Nigerian from its use. It is not a finite resource or zero-sum game.” Again, I beg to differ. Like every other gift that has been bestowed on humanity by nature, such as, crude oil, gold, diamond, and water, to mention few, plant resources are exhaustible, finite and its protection – increasingly realized to be – a zero-sum game. There is a reason why certain animals are classified as extinct and some as endangered species. There is a reason why the United States is hoarding its crude oil reserves because it can only last them a while, and they would rather utilize it as a last resort. There is a reason why Ghana was formerly called Gold Coast – because it was dense with Gold prior to British colonial claim on the mineral – and the Gold is no longer there. There is a reason why Ivory Coast is so-called, because it was dense with elephants, until the Europeans shipped out Ivory in thousands of shiploads, thereby decimating the natural resources. I am intrigued that Professor Iwu would even suggest this line in his response, having worked on certain parts of the Convention on Biodiversity. Why is the world clamouring to protect biodiversity if humanity can use them irresponsibly and know that it will still be there for millions of years of come?
Iwu further asserts that “[A]lthough we have patents for the treatment of many tropical diseases, Unfortunately no western drug manufacturing company is ready to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars required to develop these products into the much needed new drugs for the treatment of diseases that are of interest to the poor in Africa…” Here, I would directly address the younger scientists who are looking up to the West to provide the “hundreds of millions of dollars required” to develop indigenous pharmacology. First, it does not require hundreds of millions of dollars to develop indigenous pharmacology. The Western World had previously held the rest of the world hostage by presenting a rigid, uni-linear process of scientific discovery that must cost millions of dollars – paid into their treasury – in order for any knowledge to be validated. It was not until countries such as India, China and other Asian and South American nations began to break free from this intellectual imperialism, and started to insist on, and to validate their own indigenous processes, that they began to advance scientifically and technologically, and to gain respect from the West.
Prior to Western incursion, malaria never killed Africans. It was until Africans were told to discard of their own traditional remedies and await the importation of quinine from Europe for the treatment of malaria that lives began to be lost. Hundreds of years of later, we are still waiting not just for malarial drugs, but for toothpicks, fabrics, furniture, food and every other thing imaginable. The African has become synonymous with the beggar’s bowl, waiting until some Western benefactor gives him some handout before he can survive or make advancement in any area of life.
We as a people complain of racism, but tell me, how many of us who work in offices would go to the street and pick up a beggar and bring him in to the boardroom to negotiate on some important business deals? That is the way it is with Africa and Africans in the eyes of the world. African scientists – unfortunately – sit around and clamour for Western aid, while China has validated acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal medicine, Chinese food, and in India, over 100 colleges offer degrees in Ayuverda, and medical tourism in India is a growing global reality.
Nigeria and other African countries should learn from India where in 2001, the Government established the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) as a depot for thousands of various forms of indigenous Indian Pharmacology including Ayuverda, Unani and Siddha, and Yoga. India has also gone ahead to sign agreements with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, European Patent Office (EPO) and United Kingdom Trademark and Patent Office (UKPTO)to check the commercialization of Indian traditional pharmacology by scientists and researchers from all over the world.
Nigeria and the rest of Africa should quit begging for crumbs from the West and begin to canvass for a change in the WTO agreements that leave the continent vulnerable to poachers of its indigenous knowledge. Clearly the drum beat must change so that the dance steps would change with it. African and Nigerian scientists must no longer acquiesce to the West as has been done for the past 50 years without any benefit to the continent. If we go by Professor Iwu’s – I believe, well meaning – admonition, then I shudder to write that the next fifty years will meet our children in the very same position that we are in today, if, at all, they will live to witness it.