Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Conserving Nature’s Pharmacy

The timber industry has a logical need to cut down forests in order to get the raw material it requires for making wood products. But leaving forests intact gives a different industry, the pharmaceutical industry, an opportunity to explore for new products. At least 120 different chemicals used in medicines today derive from plants or trees, especially from the jungles and rain forests of the Tropics, the very places that contain the fastest deforestation rates. Therefore, a science called ethnobotany has developed to learn more about plant-derived drugs before the plants disappear and to find ways of gathering drug producing plants in a sustainable manner.

Ethnobotany is the study of relationships between native cultures and the plant life indigenous (native) to the area where the plants live. Tropical societies have long used plant- or tree-derived medicines as part of their culture, and now some pharmaceutical companies have followed that lead and established screening programs to find as many medicinal chemicals from plants as possible, as quickly as possible. Ethnobotanists take a multifaceted approach that serves the needs of large corporations and small local communities. Ethnobotany stresses two objectives that must be met together, not separately: gaining knowledge on the traditional medicines of indigenous tribes of tropical forests and (2) conserving the forests. These two objectives set ethnobotany apart from commercial bioprospecting, in which company scientists enter the forest for the sole purpose of finding and removing useful biological products.

Ethnobotanists visit local tribes to learn their customs and methods of healing, and usually the community’s shaman, or healer, shows the study team the types of trees and plants that have produced various cures since ancient times. Some medicines come only from particular leaves, or bark, or even from insects that live only on a specific plant. Mark J. Plotkin was an early advocate of ethnobotany for the purpose of learning the medicinal practices of rain forest communities. He described for the New York Times in 1999 one of his first experiences in the forest, which turned out to be a revelation for him. On a visit to South America, Plotkin introduced himself to a shaman of the Sikiyana-Chikena tribe. Times reporter John Christensen described the meeting: “He [Plotkin] then followed the shaman into the forest and watched him pick a trailside herb, peel long strips of bark from a towering tree and drain sap from a twisted vine. Back at the village, he boiled all the ingredients together in a clay pot over a wood fire. That night, the shaman gave the thick reddish-brown liquid to a young Indian woman with a nearly fatal case of diabetes. The next morning her blood sugar level was almost normal. Within a few days she was well enough to work in her garden again.” A small number of scientists took note of the opportunities hidden in the jungle; some wished to work with local communities in a cooperative way, but undoubtedly others sought only to exploit the resources.

Plotkin has criticized bioprospecting and has urged his scientific teams to work with the local people, rather than take knowledge and chemicals to the United States without giving something back to the local community. In an interview with ActionBioscience.org, Plotkin explained, “I think the whole concept of intellectual property rights boils down to a question of good manners. If you’re going to compensate local or indigenous people, you want to do so in a culturally sensitive way. But you cannot say, ‘okay—we’ll be back in twelve years and, if we have a cure for AIDS, you’ll
be in the money.’ These people have real needs now.” Plotkin now heads the Amazon Conservation Team, which sets up medical clinics and implements apprentice programs with local tribes so they may learn forest conservation principles and computer skills.

In the long term, ethnobotanists help support the biological and cultural diversity of the places they visit. Similar conservation projects now take place all over the world, including projects in the United States with Native American tribes, who already have followed sustainable practices for generations. In addition to sharing information on health and medicine, ethnobotanists try to ensure that the end result of their studies is to support local communities and preserve their forested environment.

Source of Information : Green Technology Conservation Protecting Our Plant Resources

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