Some TRM can be used and understood outside its local, traditional and/or communal context and acquire commercial value, but this is not always the case. There are spiritual components in the TRM peculiar to each community. Knowledge that cannot be utilized beyond its communal context has little or no commercial value, despite the value that such knowledge may have for communal life (Koning, 1998, p. 265).
The commercial value of TRM can be directly reaped by the knowledge holders or through transmission of knowledge to researchers and companies, domestic or foreign. TRM’s commercial value may derive from different activities, such as cultivation of medicinal plants for sale or production and distribution of TRM-based medicines. TRM can also be a signpost for the screening of natural products for therapeutic benefit,32 or useful to confirm research results produced in the laboratory and complement scientific testing, including safety and efficacy.
32 Biochemist Norman Farnsworth’s (1988) estimated that of the 119 plant-based compounds used in medicine worldwide, 74 per cent had the same or related uses as the medicinal plants from which they were derived (Dutfield 2000, p. 10).
Cultivation of medicinal plants is one increasingly important component of the TRM value added chain. Although cultivation from the wild continues to provide the majority of plant material consumed by the herbal medicine industry, in Asia the trend is towards agriculturally cultivated materials that often better guarantee supplies, consistency, species identification, and high levels of post-harvest handling (ten Kate and Laird, 1999, p. 101; Chandra, 2002, 142).33 In contrast, in Africa, whose population relies greatly on TRM, virtually no investment in such cultivation of medicinal plants has been made.34
33 In India it has been noted, however, that less than 30 of the medicinal plants utilized by the industry are under commercial cultivation. 80,000 metric tones a year of certain plant varieties are being collected from the wild. At this rate of collection, the TRM industry may crash because of lack of suppliers in the short term (Shankar, 1996, p. 171).
34 Personal communication by Bodeker 2001.
The production and commercialization (including internationally) of products based on codified TRM generates considerable value. For instance, the total Indian Ayurvedic market was estimated at Rs 1000 Crore in 1999 (Warrier, 1999, p. 14). TRM was estimated to generate for China - the leading country in this field - income for about US$5 billon in 1999 from the international market and US$1 billion from the domestic market. Europe’s TRM market in 1999 was calculated to be US$11.9 billion (Germany contributing 38 per cent, France 21 per cent and United Kingdom 12 per cent) (Pranoto, 2001, p. 2).
Attempts have been made to estimate the contribution of bio-diversity related traditional knowledge to modern industry, particularly pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, estimating the full value of traditional knowledge in monetary terms is difficult if not impossible,35 and significant controversy exists about the value of TRM as a source of new products for pharmaceutical companies. It has been pointed out that in some cases pharmaceutical companies have obtained considerable benefits from the exploitation of TRM.36 Some have observed, however, a declining interest by pharmaceutical companies in bio-prospecting for new drugs,37 especially in view of the opportunities opened by genomics, combinatorial chemistry and proteomics.38 Others suspect that pharmaceuticals companies may wish to downplay their involvement in “biopiracy” and to de-emphasise the risk of appropriation, so that policy makers will create more advantageous policy measures for access and benefit sharing.
35 See, e.g. Dutfield 2000, p. 10
36 An often cited case is the use of the Madagascan rosy periwinkle plant by Eli Lilly for the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease (a type of lymph cancer) and child-hoodleukemia.
37 According to Greene, some imagine “that traditional medicinal knowledge of indigenous peoples is an object of great interest to drug companies and hence deserving of a high value (given its scarcity). Analysis of the case at hand and continuing trends away from research involving traditional plant remedies in the pharmaceutical industry cast great doubt on the dollar value of traditional knowledge to pharmaceutical companies” (Greene, 2001, p. 31).
38 See, e.g. Barsh, 2001.
Established agreements for access and benefit sharing do not assist in providing a clear picture of the commercial value of non-codified TRM. A small number of publications in the ethno-botanical literature (Blum 1993; Carlson et al. 1997; King and Carlson 1995; Carlson, 2001; Nelson-Harrison et al, 2002) describe real life examples of how agreements for research and benefit sharing were established and implemented between northern researchers and communities.39 An analysis of bio-prospecting undertaken since 1992 in developing countries by the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (National Cancer Institute), showed that four out of eight ICBG projects collected ethnomedical data, and three used ethnomedical data to select plants for testing. Three big pharmaceutical corporations and an emerging biotechnology company participated in ICBG projects, along with six U.S. universities. Only one U.S. patent40 resulted from the ICBG program, despite that 200,000 field specimens had been screened (Barsh, 2001). Examples of agreements for acquiring and developing TRM, include the agreement between Merck and the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) of Costa Rica, and that between Extracta (a Brazilian company) and Glaxo-Wellcome, aimed at investigating natural compounds for use as antibiotics and treatment of tropical diseases, such as dengue fever.41 There is, however, no precise data available on the commercial benefits arising from these contracts, probably because it will take several years for them to be generated, if commercial benefits arise at all.
39 See also Laird, 2002, and Ben-Dak, 1999.
40 U.S. Patent No. 5.591.770 on the use of extracts of the Sarawak tree (Calophyllum lanigerum) in chemotherapy, which is being worked by a joint venture between university scientists and the government of Sarawak.
41Journal do Brasil, July 30, 1999.