Albion Monitor /News

Rich Countries Exploit Africa for Healing Plants

by Kenneth Blackman

Africa rarely profis from plants secretly used in Western laboratories as raw materials to develop drugs

(IPS) DAKAR -- Indigenous healers swear by a wild plant growing in the Korup mountains of southeast Cameroon which goes by the unwieldy name "Aneistrocladus Korupensis." They use it to treat a host of ailments including venereal diseases, according to Jean-Marie Fondoun, a plant genetic specialist at the Center for Agricultural research in Yaounde, Cameroon. Fondoun says the healers' purported success attracted researchers who, two years ago, started analyzing the plant, and Cameroonian and U.S. scientists have been working together to test and eventually transform the plant into a drug for modern medical use.

But Africa has rarely profited from the many other plants secretly used in Western laboratories as raw materials to develop drugs which are then sold worldwide, even back on their continent of origin, according to participants in a Nov. 27-30 meeting here on plant genetic resources.

Africa boasts a host of plant species that are already, or could be, used for anything from producing a tasty midday meal to curing many diseases. Central Africa's forests, for example, have over 10,000 species of plants, according to a draft report on that region's plant genetic resources.

"We must be given the means to do research together and share the benefits"

The document, together with one from West Africa and others produced in other regions of the world, will serve as the basis for the first global report on the state of plant genetic resources , to be adopted at the Fourth International Technical Conference on PGR, scheduled for June in Leipzig, Germany.

A global plan of action on plant genetic resources will also be adopted at the Leipzig meeting, organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), according to FAO's David Cooper.

The action plan will focus on the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of the benefits of plant genetic resources, Cooper told some 60 delegates from West and Central African countries and regional research institutes in the Dakar meeting, the last in a series of 11 regional preparatory meetings for next year's conference.

Some delegates at the Dakar gathering, co-organized by the FAO and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute believe regulation of plant genetic resources is long overdue.

"I have to stop myself from mentioning the names of countries which collect African plants, analyze them at home and which are perhaps using them to prepare medicines while nothing flows back to us," fumes Prof. Ayingwe Loubini, who lectures at the University of Kikwit in Zaire.

"I know, for example, that there has been a study on the strophanthus family of medicinal plants, used mainly to treat heart ailments and nerve disorders," adds Loubini, who conducts research on the use of plants in Zaire and has been working on plant-distribution maps in his country. "Chemical analysis have been done on these plants and I know there are people who have developed drugs from them.

"So we are afraid that when we disclose our medicinal plants, the rich countries will take them, analyze them, find out their chemical composition and make synthetic products which they market and then our plants will become useless," he told IPS. "We must be given the means to do research (on plant genetic resources) together and share the benefits."

"A policeman who sees someone with a plant simply assumes that he is going to use it to decorate his home"

But Africa's capacity to monitor the way plant material from their countries is developed by researchers linked to Northern pharmaceutical corporations is questionable, NGO representatives point out.

"Plant genetic resources have high commercial value," says Jacqueline Nkoyok, executive secretary of the Confederation of Central African NGOs. "Do African countries have the capacity to follow the process from the original plant to the product derived from it and claim our due?"

In fact, many nations do not even have mechanisms that come anywhere near protecting their plant resources.

In Congo, for example, "there are no strict regulations, and border controls tend to be lax, so sometimes plants have been taken out illegally," says Dr. Jean Marcel Mingui of the Center for Research on the Genetic Improvement of Tropical Plants in Brazzaville.

"Moreover, the people themselves are not aware of the importance of plant resources. For example, a policeman who sees someone with a plant simply assumes that he is going to use it to decorate his home," he adds.

Despite the concern of African researchers, medicinal plants are likely to take a back seat in the Leipzig conference, which is expected to focus much more attention on questions relating to food plants.

"It will not be the main issue at the Leipzig conference...partly because countries themselves are divided on the issue," said FAO's Cooper. "Latin America, for example, does not want the discussions to focus on medicinal plants, whereas Africa does."

"But I think there will be some discussion on the issue and I think there will have to be room for different approaches to the questions of access and benefit-sharing," he noted.

Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

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