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Biopiracy: Neem, the wonder tree: a classic example of biopiracy from which Africa has a lot to learn is the blatant pirating of the Neem tree, dubbed by the UN as the "tree of the 21st century".

In India, over 70 patents have already been taken out by Western (mainly American) corporations from the Neem tree whose wide-ranging medicinal and environmental properties have been used, at no cost, by indigenous people for over 4,000 years. Suddenly, the Neem's properties are being claimed by big businesses under the Western-imposed Intellectual Property Rights.

Having figured out the Neem's usefulness as a medicinal and eco-friendly source of pesticides, Western corporations are clambering all over it claiming fake discoveries and preaching the tired gospel of job creation for locals. But anti-biopiracy activists and indigenous people deem this encroachment as theft and pirating of indigenous knowledge, and are fighting to free the Neem tree.

But while India is embroiled in this state of affairs, it is increasingly becoming clear that the African Neem tree is the next target for the bio-pirates. Although hardly publicised, there are some Western companies who have already claimed patents to some of the properties of the Neem tree in certain parts of Kenya, and it appears that the Kenyan and other African governments have not noticed it at all.

Why the Neem tree? Dubbed by the United Nations as the "tree of the 21st century", this evergreen tropical tree has many versatile traits-medicinal, health, ecological and cosmetic. It is widely acknowledged that in this tree lie a lot of solutions to many of Africa's health and environmental problems.

The Neem has also been referred to as the "village pharmacy", the "curer of all ailments" and the "blessed tree". Most recently, acknowledging the importance of the Neem, the US National Research Council's Board on Science and Technology for international Development, described it as "a tree for solving global problems."

Scientists have isolated over 135 compounds from different pares of the tree, which have been researched and proven to be sale. The Neem's seed and leaf extracts, for example, have been proven to be effective against both chloroquin-resistant and sensitive-strain malaria parasites (both very common in Africa). The Neem's oil, bark, leaf and flower extracts have been used to control leprosy, intestinal worms, respiratory disorders, constipation, rheumatism, sexually transmitted diseases, ulcers, skin ulcers and infections such as eczema, blood morbidity, fever, stomach aches, anorexia, piles, urinary disorders, measles, diabetes, arthritis and chest infections, its twigs are used in the cure of asthma and can be used as a toothbrush without the need of toothpaste as they contain antiseptic properties.

Currently, the Neem tree is also gaining particular attention from researchers seeking a cure for Aids because it has been proven that its extracts not on]y contain antiviral properties, but also boost the immune system.

The Neem is also indispensable for its non-toxic, eco-friendly properties. Its complex chemical makeup makes it resistant to more than 200 different types of insects, mites, fungi and bacteria and has given hope to the manufacturing of non-hazardous pesticides and insects repellents. In 1959, a massive plague of locusts attacked every tree and plant in Sudan except the Neem tree. Additionally, the fact that it grows quickly and flourishes even in the poorest drought-ravaged soils, makes the Neem the perfect tree for soil erosion control, salination and flood prevention.

It is, therefore, imperative that African governments learn from the Indian case, and act upon the lessons. Imagine what would happen in the life of an African village healer whose family has for centuries passed on the knowledge of extracting and administering the healing qualities of the Neem tree, being suddenly told that he must pay royalties to an American company for using the same knowledge that he and his family have used for centuries?

To most Africans, patenting of traditional healing herbs, plants and trees is unheard of. How does one patent product of nature? This will be the common scenario unless something is done by African governments.

Masking their piracy in the name of TRIPS, multinational corporations can use the patent, not on the tree itself, but the techniques used in extracting the medicinal of ecological properties. What this means is that, where the traditional healer offered his service for a minimal and affordable cost (even free), the cost of the patented version (likely to come with a Latinised scientific name) will be higher and out of reach of most Africans.

There are reports that this is already happening in some parts of Kenya where the Neem (local name, Mwarobatini-meaning 40 cures in Swahili) has had some of its properties expropriated by Western companies.
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Author:Jere-Malanda, Regina
Publication:New African
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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