Sustainable use of biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge: Securing economic benefits for tribal communities – Kerala & Tamil Nadu

The book explores the possibility of sustainable use of biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge with economic benefit for the communities and countries that have conserved them for generations.


THERE is an irony related to biodiversity and economics. Communities that live in close contact with biodiversity-rich forests are economically poor, whereas people who live in biodiversity-poor urban centres and make commercial use of the biological resources are economically rich. To stretch the theory further, biodiversity-rich tropical countries are usually economically poor, whereas developed industrialised countries, which use biological resources to manufacture industrial products, are rich. […]

A trek with Kanis

There were far more questions than answers. The Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, entering into an agreement with the Kani tribal people of the Western Ghats was one of the efforts taken to work out a benefit-sharing model with the conservers of biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge. Scientists of the JNTBGRI discovered the energy-giving qualities of the fruit of a plant called “Arogyapacha” (Trichopus zeylanicus) during their trek into the forests in 1987 for an ethnobotanical survey with elders of the Kani tribe as guides. Even as the scientists panted as they climbed the steep slopes, the tribal elders showed no signs of fatigue. The reason for this, they found out, was “Arogyapacha” fruits they consumed.

An agreement was worked out between the Kanis, the JNTBGRI and a private company Arya Vaidya Pharmacy Ltd (AVP), to bring this biodiversity product and the associated traditional knowledge into greater public use by developing a commercial drug called Jeevani. The JNTBGRI scientists identified and isolated 12 active compounds from the fruit and filed two patent applications on the drug. […]

A trust fund, with nine Kanis as trustees, was established in 1997.

The benefit-sharing arrangement, however, went through some chaotic phases. The Forest Department had reservations about declaring Arogyapacha a minor forest produce, for fear of its over-exploitation. There was a lack of unanimity among the Kani people about their understanding of the benefit-sharing and the trust arrangement. Then there were the complexities relating to who owned the resource and the traditional knowledge and whether the plant was growing on private or government land. […]

The Nagoya protocol

Also, the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, an offshoot of the CBD, came into force in October 2014, mandating countries to enact laws to protect these elements. The protocol aims to facilitate access to genetic resources and share benefits from their commercial use with the communities in an internationally acceptable manner, which has legal certainty and transparency.

Interestingly, India had most of the elements of the Nagoya Protocol as part of its Biodiversity Act of 2002. Thus, it has much of the framework required for commercialising biological diversity and associated traditional knowledge in a sustainable manner. […]

Srivastava’s conclusions and recommendations may not be the last word on the subject as it is constantly evolving. But, his effort to comprehensively include in the book all aspects of access and benefit sharing will certainly enable managers, researchers, activists and representatives of the indigenous community to negotiate better deals in the future.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

SourceFrontline Magazine, May 27, 2016
Date Visited: 2 December 2017

Many indigenous peoples, local communities and governments seek intellectual property (IP) protection for traditional knowledge (TK) and traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) as intangible assets. Such assets can range from traditional medicine and environmental knowledge to art, symbols and music.

Genetic resources (GRs) as such are not patentable but inventions based on them may be. Widespread use and the digital and technological transformation of GRs for innovation in the life sciences creates the need for a unique, cross-cutting approach to the interface between IP and GRs.

Source: “Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions”, World Intellectual Property Organization
Date Visited: 3 January 2022


A fictionalized account of the intellectual property rights (IPRs) discussed above has been published in 2017:

I am very happy to share with you the link to my third Intellectual Property law thriller, The Dravidian – God’s Own Tribe, which is now available on Amazon Kindle. The novel is loosely based on the traditional knowledge case of the Kani Tribe from the Western Ghats. Link to my novel:

Source: email from Dr. Kalyan C. Kankanala 2 December 2017

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“If we take action, the right action – as the report [on Biological Diversity] proposes – we can transition to a sustainable planet.” […] Many good things are happening around the world and these should be celebrated and encouraged […] We have to act now. It is not too late. Otherwise, our children and grandchildren will curse us because we will leave behind a polluted, degraded and unhealthy planet.” – Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity – “Extinction: Urgent change needed to save species, says UN”, BBC News, 15 September 2020 >>

“Extinction: Urgent change needed to save species, says UN”
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For additional learning resources visit the website of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), “a public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi”:

Communication for Awareness
CSE’s publications and informational products have been its strength and they have always combined research and readability to get the message across.

CSE’s tools for awareness raising are periodicals, publications, films/short spots, briefing papers, exhibitions, posters and other products. CSE’s informational products reach people in more diverse ways such as features service, website and e-news bulletins. […]

Source: About CSE
Date Visited: 10 July 2022

Learn more | Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (posts)

Biodiversity | Biodiversity hotspot | Hyderabad biodiversity pledge

Climate change | Audio | The Climate Question (BBC Podcast)

eBook | Background guide for education

Ecology and environment | Eco tourism | Tourism | Wildlife tourism

Environmental history and what makes for a civilization – Romila Thapar

Equations blog (Equitable Tourism Options)

Forest Rights Act (FRA) | Hunter-gatherersIllegal miningLegal rights over forest land

Indigenous knowledge systems

Information provided by Indian government agencies and other organizations (FAQ)

Man animal conflict

Nature and wildlife | Crocodile | Elephant | Tiger | Mangrove forest | Trees

PARI’s tales from tiger territory | People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)

Revival of traditions

Sacred grove

Shola Trust | Nilgiri Biosphere

Success story

Water and development – India’s tribal communities

Western Ghats – tribal heritage & ecology

Wildlife tourism

What is the Forest Rights Act about? 
Who is a forest dweller under this law, and who gets rights?