For thousands of years, the neem tree has been a familiar friend to the people of India. A native of India and Burma, every part of this tree, from its root to bark, leaves and seed, has been used for medicinal purposes. It has been used to cure illnesses. It has also been used for preventing infection, or repelling insects that attack grains or people, like mosquitoes.
It is very interesting that the neem’s botanical name, Azadirachta indica, has come from a Persian description of the tree. They called the neem azad darakht-i-Hindil, which literally meant “the free tree of India”.
The story of neem took an interesting twist some years ago. Some time ago, an American company announced that it had made a fungicide out of neem seeds. A fungicide has the power to destroy fungus that infects plants and destroys them.
The company then decided that it wanted to be the only company to make this product. So it applied for a patent. A patent is an official document which recognises that a person or company has indeed created or invented a new product. Thus the person or company has the sole right to make and sell that product.
It was very strange. An American company was trying to make sure that the “free tree” became its slave. The company filed an application for a patent on the neem fungicide at the European Patent Office at Munich in Germany.
It took some time for the government of India to get into action. And then, scientists started collecting proof of the fact that Indians have used neem seeds as a fungicide for thousands of years. And this knowledge has been available for anyone and everyone.
The case took a long time. The good news came last week and the newspapers wrote about it on their front pages. The European Patent Office had rejected the claim of the American company that it had created a new fungicide from new seeds.
The four-member panel of judges also had a name for the action of the US company. They called it bio-piracy. What it meant was that the company had tried to steal people’s knowledge of plants for its own profit by pretending that it was the company’s own creation.
In the countries of Asia and Africa, people still have a very valuable collection of knowledge about trees and plants and their medicinal qualities. Most of the forests that have these trees are also to be found in these continents. This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation. And its benefits have been shared by all.
For some time now, Western countries have been wanting to make full use of this knowledge for their own profit. And they have been trying to get patents by claiming that they have made something new!
In that sense, India’s victory is great news for us.