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Medicinal plant potential and profits in Latin America

February 1, 2011

Panama’s Darién National Park is the largest national park in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Within the park three distinct groups of Indigenous people — the Emberá, the Kuna, and the Wounaan — live a lifestyle that has been largely unchanged for centuries. Catherine Potvin, a researcher at McGill University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, first encountered the Emberá people in 1994. It was an experience that completely changed her life.

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With the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Potvin subsequently headed a project to study how the Emberá use and conserve medicinal plants and traditional medicine. It also addressed the issue of fair compensation for the knowledge of the traditional healers. “The World Bank says this is one of the most critically endangered regions in the world,” she told the International Symposium on Biodiversity and Health, held in Ottawa in October 2003. “The goal was to give a voice to local people so that they would be heard from an international perspective. What people in the village were telling me was not what I was hearing in the Articles of the Convention on Biological Diversity.”

Potvin and her team used group discussions, formal interviews, and workshops on intellectual property rights to gather information. Field collection of medicinal plants was done with the cooperation of local botánicos — traditional healers, all men, who specialize in plant-based medicine. “Three weeks after we started we were approached by the women of the village, who said that working only with the men was a big mistake,” she said. They explained that women typically grew many medicinal plants, usually in their home gardens. The emphasis was on the treatment of common childhood ailments, and for gynecological and obstetrical uses.

“So we added a woman healer — a botánica — to the team. None of the botánicos reported knowing any plants related to child bearing. It became apparent that the botánica knew plants that were both gender neutral or specifically aimed at female conditions,” Potvin said.

The researchers also wanted to know to what extent people use and trust traditional medicines. A survey of most of the village households found that about 60% had been to see a botánico at some time. “They [the villagers] seem to have a fair understanding of which kind of medicine is good for them depending on the type and severity of the illness,” she said.

Property rights

On the touchy subject of intellectual property rights, it was found that the botánicos charge as much to teach as they do to treat patients, although the women appeared to share their knowledge of traditional medicine without charge. “The price charged is an impediment to the transfer of knowledge,” Potvin pointed out. However, discussions with the village elders suggested that within living memory there had always been some sort of compensation involved for traditional medical knowledge.

In a workshop organized to discuss the concept of property rights with Indigenous lawyers, community members agreed that the botánicos had at least some level of property rights. But there was a consensus that traditional medical knowledge is also a collective property. “The reality is clearly complex, and creative thinking will be needed to resolve issues of property rights and benefit sharing in keeping with the perception of local people,” Potvin concluded.

Similar findings were reported by Dr Pablo Solis, of the University of Panama’s School of Pharmacy, who has carried out ethnobotanical surveys among the Kuna people, the second largest group of native people in Panama. However, the studies found one major difference — only 11% of families surveyed said they used the services of a traditional healer, while 34% would consult a physician, and 33% said they would self-medicate. The surveys also found that medicinal plants are more commonly used to treat fever, birth problems, and diarrhea.

The situation in Mexico is very different, according to Dr Rachel Mata of the University of Mexico. Recent surveys show that there are about 21 600 species of vascular plants in the country, of which about 3 350 are used for medicinal purposes. Many of these medicinal plants are sold in markets alongside other produce. There are also the yerberias or herbalists, who specialize in herbal medicines for a wide range of ailments.

Although much work remains to be done on medicinal plants, the results of the investigations by Mexican scientists over the last two decades clearly indicate that “the potential of Mexican medicinal flora is enormous,” Dr Mata said. However, there is increasing concern over the commercialization of many medicinal plants in Mexico.

“The problem is how to control the quality and safety of the drugs that are produced. The country urgently needs a national plan for the conservation, production, development, and exploitation of medicinal plants. We are already experiencing a loss of plant material through excessive trade.”

Incentives for conservation

Dr Barbara Timmerman, of the University of Arizona’s Center for Phytomedicine Research, conducts research into drugs made from plants and microbes in arid ecosystems. These arid lands have received much less attention than tropical rainforests as potential sources of useful biological agents, she said. However, “the development of pharmaceutical, herbal, agricultural, or industrial products from natural sources can be used to promote conservation by providing an economic return for the sustainable se of those resources,” she said.

Sonia Lagos-Witte, regional coordinator in Central America for TRAMIL — a program of applied research for traditional medicine in Latin America and the Caribbean whose work was supported by IDRC — warned, however, that “it is clear that people are using medicinal plants in a non-sustainable way. We have to realize that human health depends on the health of other species, both plants and animals. If we are to effectively conserve biodiversity in the long run we must understand the processes that lead to their sustainability.”

TRAMIL’s long term goals are to have communities meet their health care needs by using medicinal plants, and to encourage the conservation of traditional knowledge through research, capacity building, conservation, and networking. Conservation is a new component in the program, she said, adding that “from a global perspective, many questions relating to the conservation status of medicinal plants still remain unanswered. There is a large gulf between the documents and the practical implementation of the proposed actions.”

There are many positive developments, however. As Lagos-Witte pointed out, Caribbean and Central American countries are now adopting common policies on medicinal plant conservation and establishing collaborative projects and agreements for research programs. The goal: a new status for the protection of medicinal plant diversity.

Bob Stanley is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and editor.