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Preserving ancient wisdom

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   5 July 2010

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One thing that a westerner notices when he or she arrives in any of the warmer Asean countries is the proliferation of foliage and how it grows so rapidly.

In front of this writer’s home in Bangkok is small garden plot and directly on street is a bunker containing various plants, that I do not know. Upon returning home one day, I observed a lady harvesting one of the plants and she informed me that the plant had medicinal value. The plant bore no resemblance to marijuana by the way.

I was quite shocked but not surprised. In the warm and humid climate of Thailand, plants grow extremely well and they are profuse and varied.

At many vendor sites and in drugstores in Thailand there are usually displayed remedies containing traditional herbs, however, the labels are completely in the Thai language. Unless one can read the Thai language it is impossible to even identify the contents of the bottles, let alone their therapeutic effects. This knowledge is not accessible to

This knowledge is not accessible. But in India, the country’s traditional medicine system, ayurveda , has been made accessible through the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. This library is the result of eight years of dedicated work by more than 200 scientists. The knowledge dating back to 1500 B.C. has been translated from the languages of Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tamil into five international languages - English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish.

The relevance and utility of the digitalized information came to light recently in a case of bio-piracy when a large Chinese firm, Livzon, attempted to patent a drug for combating influenza and fevers based on andiographis and mint. Although the patent was granted, Indian scientists complained.

The information from the Traditional Knowledge Library was transmitted to the European Patent Office indicating the treatment had been in place in traditional Indian medicine for quite some time. The patent to the Chinese firm was withdrawn.

Since the February verdict in the case, a number of countries have approached India for help in establishing digital libraries for their own traditional plants. Among them are Asean members Thailand and Malaysia.

The modern system of digitalization is facilitating the protection of truly ancient wisdom and knowledge and maintaining in the public domain, rather than in the patent for-profit sphere.

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