Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants. Cultures have been using the environment around them for thousands of years. The use of plants were mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon circa 1770 BC. The ancient Egyptians believed that plants had medicinal powers in the afterlife of the pharaohs (King and Veilleux WWW). Indigenous cultures of the rainforests and other areas still use plants today in their everyday lives. If plants work to help these cultures, should not they be researched to help the rest of the world?
Many jungles and rainforests contain unexplored species of plants that could contain medicinal uses. Ethnobotanists explore how plants are used for things, such as food, shelter, clothing, hunting, and religious ceremonies. These scientists spend long hours of hard time in the field doing research of these plants (King and Veilleux WWW).
Ethnobotanists are usually biologists that have had additional graduate training. They may have had training in things such as archeology, chemistry, ecology, anthropology, linguistics, history, pharmacology, sociology, religion, or mythology. With these skills, they can look at more than just the plant. They look at the culture and the resource of it (King and Veilleux WWW).
There are many ethnobotanists that have helped to bring ethnomedicine to the United States. Each Ethnobotanist has their own unique way of researching cultures and plant species. The following Ethnobotanists are prominent figures in their field of research.
Paul Alan Cox took his first trip in to the jungle in 1973, on a mission as a Mormon. He later got his Ph.D. at Harvard and taught at Brigham Young University. In 1984, Cox s mother died and he became determined to find a cure for cancer. So later that year, he returned to Samoa with his family in order to continue his research. His research has led to the development of five drugs, now in different levels of development. The one closest to approval is a drug called Prostratin, which inhibits the growth of HIV. Besides working in the field, Cox is the Director of National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, where he studies and preserves endangered plant species. He is also King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science in Sweden, where he researches and records Swedish healing plants (Gerber and Marandino WWW).
Michael Balick received his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University. His fieldwork there inspired him to go into ethnobotany. I was absolutely fascinated by the diversity, the magnitude, the splendor, and the way in which the indigenous people related to their environment. Balick is currently Director of the Institute at the New York Botanical Garden and he teaches graduate courses and co-directs a woman s health program at Columbia University (Gerber and Marandino WWW).
Four months out of every year Balick leaves home to go to Brazil, Belize, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia to learn from the local people. He would like to set up a facility in Micronesia to gain the knowledge of traditional healing. A team of botanists, physicians, and healers would collect plant samples and then analyze them for healing properties. Balick has already established a facility like this in Central America (Gerber and Marandino WWW).
Rosita Arvigo and her husband worked as naprapaths and had their own healing practice in Belize, but in 1985 she met with Maya Shaman, Don Elijio Panti and changed the course of her career. When Arvigo met Don Elijio Panti he was over 90 years old and did not have an apprentice. Without an apprentice, all of his knowledge would be lost forever. Arvigo begged Elijio to take her on as his apprentice for over a year before he finally agreed, but told her that she must stay indefinitely. She studied with him for the next 10 years. They spent days at a time in the rainforest and he taught her about the plants and the Maya belief of spiritual healing. Together they treated the Shaman s large list of clients, many of them living with Elijio for months (Gerber and Marandino WWW).
One day in 1991 Don Elijio Panti was telling Arvigo how the forest used to be ten minutes from his hut, and now it was a two hour hike to get there because of the destruction of the forest. Arvigo came up with an idea to keep the plants safe from destruction. The plants would be harvested and made in to medicical tinctures. The tinctures last seven times longer than dried herbs because of the humidity. From this plan resulted a company called Rainforest Remedies. Rainforest Remedies produces a collection of nine different formulas based on the knowledge and research of Don Elijio Panti and Arvigo. The remedies treat ailments such as back pain, PMS symptoms, stomachache, colds, and flu. Half of the profits from Rainforest Remedies go to the Belize Traditional Healers Foundation to fund local healers (Gerber and Marandino WWW).
Besides running the business of Rainforest Remedies, Arvigo and her husband have established a six thousand acres plant sanctuary, where visitors can see the healing plants up close. She likes to share her knowledge as much as possible. Arvigo has seminars in both Belize and the United States about herbs and shares the teachings of Don Elijio Panti with the local healers (Gerber and Marandino WWW).
The preparation for an expedition takes months. The ethnobotanists must gather the correct tools and supplies and study the remote villages and dense tropical forests of where they will be. Researchers must also gather information. A regional study is done on epidemiology, traditional medicine, culture, and ecology of the people and environment. Databases are searched for already known information about plants used in the region (King and Veilleux WWW).
Once in the field thousands of hours are spent doing patient observation and experimentation, cataloging useful plants and poisonous ones, and searching and identifying plants. The most time is spent pressing and dying plants. This could take more time depending on the weather. Complications can occur from monsoons or heat (King and Veilleux WWW).
In the field, a team is present. This team consists of one or more ethnobotanists, researchers, and a physician. The ethnobotanist works to collect and identify plants. The researchers supply the information that they gathered before the trip to help the ethnobotanist. The physician has a very important job. The physician works with the shaman or traditional healer to find common diseases. He or she must be trained in anthropology, botany, public health, or any other relevant social sciences. They have to be open to different views of indigenous people and able to work with the other ethnobotanists (King and Veilleux WWW).
During the interview process, the physician gives a brief description, including pictures, of diseases to the shaman. The cases are presented without medical terms so that the shaman can understand. A translator is usually used in this process. Once the shaman has recognized the disease, the team records the botanical treatment. If several shamans recommend the same treatment then the plant will be collected (King and Veilleux WWW).
Twenty-five percent of pharmaceutical drugs in the United States are based on chemicals from over forty plant species (Gerber and Marandino WWW), but now few pharmaceutical companies are willing to go through the process of developing a drug found in the rainforest. Jiselle Tamayo, technical coordinator for the bioprospecting program at the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad reports that Today we are working with two pharmaceutical companies, but in 1991 there were five. (O Connor WWW).
Before 1992, profit sharing and privileges had never been provided to indigenous people who helped reveal their knowledge to others. After 1992, laws were made that governed the pharmaceutical companies. A treaty was created that had the idea that indigenous peoples are owners of the traditional knowledge and medicinal plant applications. One hundred countries have ratified the treaty, but the United States has yet to do so. Steven King, senior vice president of ethnobotany and conservation at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, said Large companies don t want to share the profits with countries and cultures, and they don t want to negotiate these contracts with countries. They want complete control over the process. (O Connor WWW).
Profit sharing was just one of the problems that pharmaceutical companies faced. Shaman Pharmaceuticals began after the treaty was signed. The FDA promised fast track approval for new developmental drugs. They later came back and said that a duplicate phase III clinical trial would be necessary. Further testing would have cost tens of millions of dollars more. The company had developed new drugs for the treatment of viral respiratory infections, herpes, and AIDS related chronic diarrhea. They did not want their new discoveries to be wasted, so they changed the company to Shaman Botanicals. Shaman Botanicals produces herbal remedies, which are not subject to the same testing as pharmaceuticals. Many other companies have started doing the same thing (O Connor WWW).
Plants are used because of their intrinsic chemical, physical, or nutritional properties. Plants are also the main interaction between humans and their environment. The Amazon and many other forests hold a vast collection of useful plants, including medicines, poisons, perfumes, dyes, adhesives, resins, fibers, construction materials, foods, and spices (Alexiades WWW). The following plants and drugs are major discoveries made by ethnobotanists through their research.
One of the biggest discoveries made was the use of Curare. Curare was originally used as a poison in war in the 1600 s. In 1939, the active ingredient, D-tubocurarine, was isolated, and led to a skeletal muscle relaxant, Intocostrin. Intocostrin has been used in surgeries ever since because it does not have the same depressant effects as Ether or Chloroform (King and Veilleux WWW).
Indian fever bark from the cinchona tree is used to cure one of the most common jungle diseases, Malaria. The active ingredient in the bark is alkaloid quinine. It was used by the natives of the Andes and Amazon highlands and was brought to Europe by Jesuit missionaries. Alkaloid quinine can be used to treat other fever inducing diseases besides Malaria (King and Veilleux WWW).
Many people in the world suffer from an eye condition called Glaucoma. Glaucoma causes blindness by building up pressure until the eye can no longer function. The leaves of the jaborandi tree secrete oil rich in alkaloid pilocarpine. When applied to the eye of someone with Glaucoma, the pilocarpine stimulates the muscle that contracts the pupil to relieve eye pressure. The tree leaves have other uses besides Glaucoma. In tablet form, it has been used to treat dry mouth syndrome, and in powder form, it is used as a stimulant and expectorant in diabetes and asthma. The Brazilians make a tea to use as a diuretic or sweat inducer. It is also said that if applied to the scalp it will prevent baldness (King and Veilleux WWW).
Some may think that pineapple is only good for eating, but it has been proven that pineapple is more useful than that. Pineapple contains an enzyme called Bromelain that breaks down proteins. Pineapple is used to reduce inflammation in wounds and other skin injuries, break down blood clots, and may aid in treatment of burned tissue, abscesses, and ulcers. It is possible that pineapple will someday play a part in heart attack treatment (King and Veilleux WWW).
Without the rainforests, these and other medicines may not exist. In 1991, a group of physicians in the Netherlands realized that losing the rainforest would be an enormous loss of resources for medicine, so they began the Rainforest Medical Foundation (RMF). The RMF works to save the rainforest and preserve the knowledge of the indigenous peoples (Rainforest Medical Foundation WWW). With the current rate of destruction in the rainforest, medicinals will not even be available for indigenous use (O Connor WWW). In many situations, the local medicine may work better than the imported expensive western medicine. The knowledge of indigenous peoples is quickly being lost. The traditional healers have extensive knowledge of plants, but due to the modernization of cultures there is a lack of interest and no apprentice to pass on the knowledge. With the help of RMF and other ethnobotanists, the knowledge may survive (Rainforest Medical Foundation WWW).
Many people believe that the rainforest does contain plants with the cures to many awful diseases. It has been proven by the ethnobotanists and their research that the rainforests do contain some beneficial resources. No major discoveries for AIDS or cancer have been found yet, but at the rate that ethnobotanists are researching and discovering new treatments for illnesses, they may someday find the major ones. For right now, the discoveries that are being made are already helping many people.