The rainforest of the Amazon has evolved for millions of years to become the complex environment that it is today. It teems with natural resources and has a vast array of both animal and plant species, contributing greatly to the well being of this planet and all of humankind. The resources of the Amazonian forest are used daily by many indigenous and non-Indian peoples for food supplies, clothing, shelter, fuel, spices, industrial materials, and medicine. Thousands of natives rely solely on the plants sourced from this rainforest as their only form of medicine. But, while Indian shamans and healers go about their days caring for the health of the tribe, the forest’s plant-sourced medicines are being tested, synthesized, patented and submitted for FDA approval in laboratories hundreds of miles away. Those with herpes, cancer, and viral infections will benefit from new medicines sourced from traditional knowledge of the Amazon rainforest. Will the indigenous people see these amazing new medicines, or receive any benefit for their diligence in passing down this traditional plant knowledge for thousands of years?
The Asháninka Native Community of Peru has an incredibly resilient tradition of plant medicine knowledge. They are one of the largest ethnic groups recorded in the Peruvian Amazon, living in the foothills of the Andean region in the central part of Peru known as “Selva Alta.” The Native Community of Bajo Quimiriki rests at the banks of the Perene River where a majority of the population relies exclusively on medicinal plants for self-medication, occasionally seeking out local shamans and healers. This community is near the city of Pichanaki, which in itself is a threat to the future of the Asháninka knowledge and practices of medicine. Because the children of the community spend most of the day at school where they are taught Spanish, they have little time to study traditional medicine or customs. Therefore the loss of traditional knowledge is a main concern for the future. These people have also been directly involved with the global political conversation of Biopiracy – a situation when indigenous knowledge of nature is used by others for profit, without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people themselves.
The Asháninka tribe members use roughly four hundred different medicinal herbs on a regular basis to address a number of health concerns. Eighty-five percent of these plants are wild harvested from the forest while the rest are cultivated in gardens. According to many ethnobotanical studies, the knowledge of medicinal plants and cultural beliefs are still alive and well among the Asháninka community and most of their medicinal plants are still available in the immediate surrounding forest. In Bajo Quimiriki the use of plants is not only in the hands of specialists in the community, but instead, each household cultivates or collects plants from the wild in order to make herbal remedies to cure common ailments.
One plant at the heart of the heated Biopiracy conversation is that of Uña de Gato, Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis, which is frequently used to treat rheumatism, inflammation, tumors, and other ailments in many areas where it grows, most commonly Peru. Among local healers of the Asháninka and other tribes, this plant is widely recognized as a power plant, possessing the ability to restore health through the removal of “anxious states” and “mal-aire” from the body. Uncaria tomentosa is now popular in more than thirty countries outside Peru as teas, tablets, and capsules. Uña de Gato was first internationally appreciated in 1970 when Austrian Klaus Keplinger studied the remarkable cancer curative and immune stimulant attributes of the plant. Since then, researchers have dissected Uña de Gato’s chemical secrets looking for ways to scientifically prove its proclaimed healing benefits. The capitalist market is reaping benefits and the industry is providing substantial income for collectors, traders, and manufacturers. But is any of this benefiting the Asháninka or other tribes who have held this plant sacred for generations?
It is very difficult to trace the origin of the discovery of Uña de Gato as a medicinal plant, making this a complicated political issue. Currently, Klaus Keplinger and others own three patents on the knowledge of the medicinal uses of Uña de Gato. These patents recognize the scientific discovery of compounds that is solely the result of research performed by the Keplinger. On the other hand, inhabitants of remote tribes in Peru provided the knowledge that Uña de Gato is used for healing and may contain such curative compounds in the first place. Such is the current political debate that is taking place between various governments, private industries, environmentalists, and political activists. Even if researchers were to provide compensation for intellectual or genetic property rights, the knowledge that this woody vine is a tremendous healer extends over a large number of Latin American tribes and is used by many folk practitioners as well.
Another part of the dilemma is that many independent entrepreneurs do collection and trade of Uña de Gato. In Peru, there are regulations around extraction, but in many cases harvesting is done with little concern for the future supply of the plant. Uña de Gato has been and still is being harvested mainly from natural stands; mostly in high natural forests on land which the Asháninka roam in order to find their own supply of the medicine. So, not only are large companies benefitting from the wisdom of the Indigenous people, but they are profiting off their actual resources, as well. Even if the patents were to be denied, people in developed countries are now demanding this plant, contributing to an unsustainable and potentially harmful market for the medicine.
This conversation is not limited to the Asháninka or to Peru. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.5 billion people rely on plants for health and medicine. Ninety percent of people in developing countries turn to traditional medicine for primary health care. Even in the United States, twenty-five percent of prescriptions are drugs whose active ingredients are derived from plants. Medicinal plants that were once limited to certain tribes are now shared on a global scale and are used to treat heart conditions, leukemia, lymphatic cancer, and many other serious illnesses.
In Germany, hypertension is treated with a drug sourced from the Asian Snakeroot. The skeletal muscle relaxant d-tubocurarine comes directly from an Amazonian arrow poison, Chonodendron tomentosum. In India, stomach pains are treated with soothing herbal teas by traditional Ayurvedic healers. Quinidine comes from the bark of Cinchona species and is now used as an anti-arrhythmic for cardiac problems. Headaches and migraines in the United States are commonly treated with aspirin, a compound isolated from Willow bark sourced from Europe. In China the medicinal plant lore goes back at least four millennia, and healers today still use more than 5,000 different species of plants. One of the most well known local anesthetics is cocaine, which is derived from the Coca leaf used by thousands of people in the Andes.
There are many profound secrets and untold treasures safeguarded by shamans, healers, and indigenous peoples of the world, especially those of the Amazon. This herbal wisdom is now being sought after because it provides clues as to which plants are worth investigating or researching. Since Amazonian Indians in many cases are the ones who know the plants and how they can be used as medicine, bioprospectors are working with the rainforest shaman and healers to learn from the wealth of their plant knowledge. It is recognized that this knowledge may have the power to help heal our species of threatening illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, and other viral infections. But, this global desire to eradicate disease is currently contributing to a system that benefits CEOS, academic careers, stockholders, and large corporations while leaving indigenous peoples such as the Asháninka vulnerable, with little benefit at all.
This current movement involves many people from different backgrounds, each with their own opinion, thoughts, ideas and perspectives, therefore finding the middle ground can be challenging. How to protect traditional knowledge from the hungry hands of patents and pharmaceuticals, and yet share beneficial herbal wisdom that is ultimately no one’s to own?
Herbal wisdom is often deeply influenced and connected to the cultural and spiritual identity of a group and is a living body that has been developed, sustained, and passed on from generation to generation within a community. Because of this living nature, the knowledge is not readily protected in the same way that an invention or intellectual property can be. We are living in a time of globalization where sharing and appropriating culture is the norm. It has become commonplace to borrow artwork, music, dance, ideas, and cultural practices from other cultures. In developed countries, especially, the popularity of yoga, chanting and meditation, African dance, Navajo rugs, and other borrowed practices only shows how difficult it would be to separate one culture from another.
This does not mean, however, that it is okay to let big business profit at the hands of the native people. This movement has helped initiate a global conversation between governments, villagers, businessmen and activists from all over the world. It has required each party to examine their beliefs, motives, and priorities, and helped governments to update some of their laws around protecting the rights of their indigenous populations.
In response to many activist protests, Peru has prevented several foreign companies from owning patents on products by proving that they were developed using the traditional knowledge of Peruvians. The National Commission Against Biopiracy has shown these products “lacked the innovation and inventiveness required for patents.” As a global community we are facing the same questions relating to medicine research. Since 2004, new rules in many countries have been made for biodiversity prospecting and natural products research, creating a new legal category similar to poaching.
After traveling and studying with the Q’ero shaman of the Andes and living with a medicine woman in the Peruvian jungle, I have come to deeply value the ability to learn from other cultures and populations. Because there are white people entering the jungles to gain knowledge of the traditional medicine practices of the Indian people, their youth have started to show interest again in their heritage. Perhaps this cultural sharing is one way that these traditions will retain their value and ultimately live on?
The Asháninka are one of many tribes at the heart of this debate. Moving forward I hope that we can learn to respect, protect, and deeply value their knowledge and place on this planet. I hope we can find a way to work together, where governments use their power to declare the importance of this ancient knowledge and we as a global culture can recognize how crucial the plants are for the future of our race and the future of our planet. I trust there is a way for modern, scientific oriented populations to still find medicines that can cure and treat diseases of the future, while simultaneously respecting and benefiting where these cures come from. Perhaps when we learn just how dependent we are on the plants, we will truly find the motivation to protect them. Until then, the desire for money, prestige, and ownership will continue to create tension between the ancient and the modern, tradition and science, developed worlds and indigenous people. People like the Asháninka and the Kayapó will continue to be forced to draw on the resources they have to make sure their voice is heard; banding together with activists and environmentalists of the developed world to make changes that benefit collectively in the future.