Medical Discoveries From The Forest Will Help Both Indians And Rain Forest Conservation, Cornell Researcher Predicts
Grow anti-malaria plants where malaria is the greatest threat, in thetropics, biologist Eloy Rodriguez tells AAAS audience
PHILADELPHIA -- Efforts to tap the botanical wisdom of the rain forest --its people, plants and animals -- are producing such encouraging resultsthat researchers, who call themselves bioprospectors, are ready to take thenext step: assisting Indian communities in cultivating newly discoveredmedicinal plants for their own use and for export to the developed world.
"The indigenous people have known about most of these plants all along.Our job as scientists is to validate their knowledge by doing the bioassaysthat prove the plants' effectiveness against disease," says Eloy Rodriguez,the Cornell University biologist who has discovered 10 plants from theAmazon rain forests with anti-malarial properties.
"We can do the chemical analyses, and we know a lot about tropicalagriculture," he says. "But the Indians in the small, rural communities arethe real experts at coexisting with their environment without destroyingthe biodiversity that produced these promising leads. Agriculture andconservation need not be mutually exclusive."
Rodriguez, who is the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studiesin Cornell's L.H. Bailey Hortorium, spoke on natural medicines of theAmazon region in a lecture today (Feb. 15) at the American Association forthe Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Philadelphia. Hereported on his students' studies of plants and animals in Venezuela'sAmazonas rain forest. He also discussed ethnobotanical research with oneindigenous tribe of the region, the Piaroa Indians.
The Piaroa led Rodriguez' students to rain forest plants that have beenused to treat a variety of medical conditions. The student-botanistsperformed preliminary chemical analyses of the plant substances in a fieldlaboratory run by Cornell in the Amazonas rain forest. Then, in the moresophisticated laboratories of IVIC, the Venezuelan scientific institute inCaracas, the natural compounds were tested against disease-causingmicroorganisms. Ten plants from the Amazonas rain forest showed biologicalactivity -- either killing or inhibiting the protozoa that cause malaria,Rodriguez reported.
Much more testing is required, Rodriguez notes, before any of the newlyidentified plants yield the next anti-malaria medicine. But the need isurgent, he says, because some strains of malaria are showing increasingresistance to available drugs. And no one needs improved drugs more, hesays, than the people who live in malaria-ridden areas of the world.
While some bioprospectors are forming alliances with pharmaceuticalcompanies, Rodriguez suggests a more direct, grass-roots approach toagromedicinal production. "We don't have time to partner with thepharmaceutical companies. Their payoff takes at least 10 years and wecan't wait that long when malaria is developing resistance. We can partnerwith agriculture and with the people who need it most."
Rodriguez calls on the national botanical gardens in tropical countries,where the horticultural focus traditionally has been on ornamental plants,to propagate medicinal plants and distribute them to indigenous farmers,who can integrate the "agromedicinals" (a term coined by Rodriguez) intotheir traditional food crops. He envisions dozens of "canucos" (the tinygarden plots maintained by the Piaroa, who remove just enough of the rainforest canopy to let sunlight to reach the soil) growing anti-malariaplants alongside bananas and papayas. The medicinal plants could beharvested, both to protect the people who grow them and for export, he says.
"The indigenous people can grow these plants to maintain biodiversity, tobe healthy and to utilize the native flora, instead of chopping down theflora to survive," Rodriguez says.
First, however, the Indians need scientific validation of theirbotanical-medicinal wisdom, Rodriguez says, pointing to "uña de gato", thetropical vine also known as cat's claw, which his laboratory and othershave shown to have immunostimulatory effects. "We asked Indians about "uñade gato. " We said, 'It's right there in your backyard. Why don't you useit?' And they said, 'Well, we used to but . . . ' " Now, with scientificvalidation, cat's claw again is again being harvested as an herbal medicineby the Indians.
The success of "uña de gato " shows that market forces can have a positiveimpact on biodiversity, the Cornell biologist says. "Of course we shouldcontinue to establish eco-reserves. But we also should help the people wholive there to survive."
Source: Cornell University. February 1998.
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