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There is a renewed interest in medicinal plants all over the world. The World Health Organization


There is a renewed interest in medicinal plants all over the world. The
World Health Organization (WHO) now has a list including 150 plants that
its experts consider therapeutic. And in Brazil right now there is a boom
of natural medicine. At least 5 million Brazilians use homeopathy as their
first choice for treatment, creating an annual half a billion dollar market.

While in the US there are no more than 3,000 homeopathic doctors, in
Brazil there are 13,000 of them. In 1982 there were a mere 300. No other
country with the exception of India has more homeopaths. And, in the last
20 years, the number of homeopathic pharmacies has skyrocketed from 10
to 1600. Two thousand pharmacists produce 3,000 medicinal formulas using
minerals, animals, and most of all plants. There are also 250 dentists
and 100 veterinarians specialized in homeopathy.

Modern pharmacology does not ignore the therapeutic effects of plants.
Forty percent of the time industrialized medicines use plants as their
active ingredient, although generally in a synthesized more concentrated
formula. The active ingredient in aspirin, for example, was originally
found in the bark of willow trees.

According to the American publication The Nutrition Business Journal,
60% of Yankee physicians have on occasion referred a patient to alternative
treatments, including naturopathy, herbalism, and homeopathy. In the U.S.,
the market for herbal supplements grossed over $700 million in 1995 and
it is expected that this amount will grow to $1.6 by the year 2000.

Botanists believe that from 35,000 to 70,000 plant species are used
throughout the world as medicine, most of them growing in tropical forests.
And in the U.S. there are at least 120 widely used prescription drugs made
from 95 species of plants, 39 of which are originally from the rainforest.

Roughly 1/4 of all pharmaceutical products in the market today use substances
from the rainforest. Among widely used products based on plants we have
aspirin, morphine, and codeine. There is also digitalis, used as a heart
medicine; curare, as a muscle relaxant; and colchicin, prescribed as an
anti-inflammatory.





 IN THE BEGINNING
Five hundred years ago, 14% of the earth's surface was covered by rainforest.
Since then, an area of 3.5 million square miles of these forests, roughly
equivalent to the size of the United States, has been destroyed. The rainforest
today occupies only 6% of the earth. As a consequence of this destruction
it is estimated that 1.5 million life form species were lost and 50,000
more continue to be destroyed every year. All this was done and continues
to be done in the name of progress and allegedly for economic reasons,
even though studies have shown, for example, that 2.4 acres of land in
the Amazon can produce $1,000 of annual income when clear cut, but generate
$6,800 a year when left intact.

Despite all the destruction, it is believed that the rainforests still
preserve 30 million different species, roughly half of all life forms on
earth and 2/3 of all plants. This without mentioning the importance of
these forests to the earth's weather and atmosphere. A third of the world's
tropical forests are in Brazilian territory and, as for the Amazon forest,
two thirds of it are in Brazil. The country still boasts the Pantanal (the
world's largest wetland), the Cerrado (the world's most biologically diverse
Savannah), and the Mata Atlântica, an even richer life laboratory
than the Amazon, despite its much smaller size.

At the time of Brazil's discovery, the Mata Atlântica, the strip
of luscious forest covering the entire Brazilian coast, occupied an area
equivalent to 12% of today's national territory. In its widest area the
strip was as large as 300 miles. Today this treasure has been reduced to
10% of its original size. From 1985 to 1990 alone 1.2 billion trees were
cut. Its destruction is a textbook case of how to dilapidate an inestimable
patrimony.

The devastation accompanied the several cycles of the Brazilian economy,
all of them much more interested in immediate profit instead of a long-term
planned investment. First was the brazil wood cycle that would cut this
valuable tree destroying in the process 6,000 sq. km of the forest. In
the XVIII century, the discovery of gold and precious stones gave the jungle
a respite while 2,000 tons of gold were dug up. During the sugar cane and
coffee cycles as well as the cocoa tree plantation cycle in the state of
Bahia, huge areas of jungle would be burned down to make room for these
crops. From 1.5 million sq. km 500 years ago, the Mata Atlântica
today is just a sad shadow of its previous self, with just 95,000 sq. km
left.

Despite all the recent rhetoric in Brazil about preserving the green,
Brazilians were and still are too eager to cut trees. Not before the 80s
did the first green groups start to voice their outrage and the theme became
a national issue. In Brazil, the jungle and backwardness have always been
equated. Caipira and caipora, two words to designate a rustic
man without culture have their roots in Tupi terms that referred to inhabitants
of the forest.

There is a renewed interest in medicinal plants all over the world. The
World Health Organization (WHO) now has a list including 150 plants that
its experts consider therapeutic. And in Brazil right now there is a boom
of natural medicine. At least 5 million Brazilians use homeopathy as their
first choice for treatment, creating an annual half a billion dollar market.

While in the US there are no more than 3,000 homeopathic doctors, in
Brazil there are 13,000 of them. In 1982 there were a mere 300. No other
country with the exception of India has more homeopaths. And, in the last
20 years, the number of homeopathic pharmacies has skyrocketed from 10
to 1600. Two thousand pharmacists produce 3,000 medicinal formulas using
minerals, animals, and most of all plants. There are also 250 dentists
and 100 veterinarians specialized in homeopathy.

Modern pharmacology does not ignore the therapeutic effects of plants.
Forty percent of the time industrialized medicines use plants as their
active ingredient, although generally in a synthesized more concentrated
formula. The active ingredient in aspirin, for example, was originally
found in the bark of willow trees.

According to the American publication The Nutrition Business Journal,
60% of Yankee physicians have on occasion referred a patient to alternative
treatments, including naturopathy, herbalism, and homeopathy. In the U.S.,
the market for herbal supplements grossed over $700 million in 1995 and
it is expected that this amount will grow to $1.6 by the year 2000.

Botanists believe that from 35,000 to 70,000 plant species are used
throughout the world as medicine, most of them growing in tropical forests.
And in the U.S. there are at least 120 widely used prescription drugs made
from 95 species of plants, 39 of which are originally from the rainforest.

Roughly 1/4 of all pharmaceutical products in the market today use substances
from the rainforest. Among widely used products based on plants we have
aspirin, morphine, and codeine. There is also digitalis, used as a heart
medicine; curare, as a muscle relaxant; and colchicin, prescribed as an
anti-inflammatory.

 IN THE BEGINNING
Five hundred years ago, 14% of the earth’s surface was covered by rainforest.
Since then, an area of 3.5 million square miles of these forests, roughly
equivalent to the size of the United States, has been destroyed. The rainforest
today occupies only 6% of the earth. As a consequence of this destruction
it is estimated that 1.5 million life form species were lost and 50,000
more continue to be destroyed every year. All this was done and continues
to be done in the name of progress and allegedly for economic reasons,
even though studies have shown, for example, that 2.4 acres of land in
the Amazon can produce $1,000 of annual income when clear cut, but generate
$6,800 a year when left intact.

Despite all the destruction, it is believed that the rainforests still
preserve 30 million different species, roughly half of all life forms on
earth and 2/3 of all plants. This without mentioning the importance of
these forests to the earth’s weather and atmosphere. A third of the world’s
tropical forests are in Brazilian territory and, as for the Amazon forest,
two thirds of it are in Brazil. The country still boasts the Pantanal (the
world’s largest wetland), the Cerrado (the world’s most biologically diverse
Savannah), and the Mata Atlântica, an even richer life laboratory
than the Amazon, despite its much smaller size.

At the time of Brazil’s discovery, the Mata Atlântica, the strip
of luscious forest covering the entire Brazilian coast, occupied an area
equivalent to 12% of today’s national territory. In its widest area the
strip was as large as 300 miles. Today this treasure has been reduced to
10% of its original size. From 1985 to 1990 alone 1.2 billion trees were
cut. Its destruction is a textbook case of how to dilapidate an inestimable
patrimony.

The devastation accompanied the several cycles of the Brazilian economy,
all of them much more interested in immediate profit instead of a long-term
planned investment. First was the brazil wood cycle that would cut this
valuable tree destroying in the process 6,000 sq. km of the forest. In
the XVIII century, the discovery of gold and precious stones gave the jungle
a respite while 2,000 tons of gold were dug up. During the sugar cane and
coffee cycles as well as the cocoa tree plantation cycle in the state of
Bahia, huge areas of jungle would be burned down to make room for these
crops. From 1.5 million sq. km 500 years ago, the Mata Atlântica
today is just a sad shadow of its previous self, with just 95,000 sq. km
left.

Despite all the recent rhetoric in Brazil about preserving the green,
Brazilians were and still are too eager to cut trees. Not before the 80s
did the first green groups start to voice their outrage and the theme became
a national issue. In Brazil, the jungle and backwardness have always been
equated. Caipira and caipora, two words to designate a rustic
man without culture have their roots in Tupi terms that referred to inhabitants
of the forest.

“The Amazon’s chemiodiversity is much bigger than the forest’s visible
part,” says Massuo Kato from Universidade de São Paulo’s (USP) Chemistry
Institute. Kato has worked in the development of a new classification for
the Amazon’s vegetables based on the chemistry of its fruits. This should
help to find what is the best time for picking the fruit as well as indicate
which part of it has more active elements.

There are tens of millions of species in the world, according to scientists
speculations, even though they were able to describe less than 1.5 million
up to now, half of them living in rainforests. Some scientists believe
that that proportion would grow to 90% in favor of the tropical forest
if a complete tally of all species was ever accomplished. Brazil is home
to the greatest number of insects species, as well as of terrestrial vertebrates,
amphibians, primates, freshwater fish, and flowering plants. With a handful
of other countries, it is classified by scientists as a megadiversity land.
 

 

GET OFF OUR JUNGLE
Most of all, the military are today in the forefront of a movement to keep
foreigners out of the Brazilian jungle. Some of them are even ready to
go to war, literally, in defense of the rainforest against what they call
the “international cupidity”.

“We can start a guerrilla war over there as the Vietnamese have done,”
said reformed colonel Gélio Augusto Fregapani at the end of last
year in Rio, during a forum called “Amazon – Threat of Territorial Losses,
Occupation, and Development,” which was part of the Third National Encounter
on Strategic Studies, a meeting organized by the Escola Superior de Guerra
( Higher School of War).

It was a rare instance of the right and left putting aside their differences
to join efforts against a common enemy. Former Army minister Leônidas
Pires Gonçalves was there as well as Roraima’s governor Neudo Campos,
and historian Lygia Garner, who teaches at Southeast Texas University.

The assembly’s indignation was palpable when lieutenant-colonel, Marcus
Vinicius Belfort Teixeira, who at 43 is considered one of the youngest
most active military voices today, denounced the U.S. effort to internationalize
the Amazon. And the mood was belligerent when the Air Force officer told
about a sticker circulating on car windows in London that say: “Fight for
the forest. Burn a Brazilian.”

According to Belfort, the Brazilian government is demarcating indigenous
areas on the frontier with other South American countries—something he
considers extremely dangerous to national security—succumbing to international
pressure mainly from the United States and Germany. Americans and Germans,
according to Teixeira and other military personnel, are interested in the
mineral-rich area’s subsoil.
 

 

AMERICA’S 
WONDER DRUGS

Coca

A sacred plant used as food and folk medicine in the Andes for a variety
of purposes including an anesthetic and calcium supplement. Coca (Erythroxylum
coca) means simply tree in the Aymara dialect. It was in 1860 that German
chemist Carl Köler isolated the cocaine and found its virtues as a
local anesthetic. After that, coca and cocaine started to be used for a
variety of ailments and were added to several tonics including Coca-Cola.
Curare

A poisonous concoction with several plants whose formula was kept a
secret for centuries. Alexander von Humboldt was the first European to
witness and describe the way the ingredients were put together, in 1800.
But curare would start being used as an anesthetic only in 1943, four years
after its active ingredient, the d-tubocurarine was isolated.
Quinine

Used as an infusion by the Amazon natives in the treatment of fever.
Derived from the cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis) it was used
in the 20s in the US for the treatment of malaria. Known as Indian fever
bark the product was used in Europe since the early 1500s. One century
later its name had been changed to Jesuit fever bark. The demand for the
cinchona almost made it extinct. By smuggling it from South America to
Java, in 1865, Englishman Charles Ledger saved the plant. Sixty years later,
more than 95% of the world’s quinine was coming from Java.
 

A Natural 
First-Aid Kit
Ayahuasca or caapi or santo daime or jagupe (Banisteria caapi)—Stimulant
of the senses, with claims to cure cancer. Patented by International Plant
Medicine Corporation.

Bibiri or beberu (Ocotea radioei)— Used as contraceptive
and as a HIV and small tumors inhibitor.

Cabacinha (Luffa operculata)—Mixed with cachaça
(sugar-cane hard liquor) it is used against sinusitis and as a nasal
decongestant. As an unguent it is applied on tumors.

Erva botão (Eclipta prostata)—An antidote to snake
bites.

Erva de jabuti or aperta-ruão (Leandra lacunosa)—Good
against diabetes.

Guaraná (Paulinia cupania)— Source of caffeine,
it fights fatigue. Used in soft drinks.

Hortelã roxo—Used as solution for ear pain.

Jaborandi (Pilocarpus jaborandi)—Taken as a tea
as a diuretic or to induce sweat. Also used in treatment of diabetes, asthma,
arthritis, and baldness.

Japana (Eupatoriu ayapana)—Leaves are rubbed on insects
bites.

Muirapuama (Ptychopetalum olacoides)- It is reputed
to be an aphrodisiac. Also used for arthritis and as a stimulant.

Oriza—Tea is taken for heart ailments

Pau d’Arco (Tabebuia impetiginosa) A medicine for candida,
athletes foot and also used as a natural anti-biotic. It has also been
used against cancer.

Picão (Bidens Pilosa)—For the treatment of malaria
and hepatitis

Puxuri or puxiri or pixurim (Licaria Puchurymajor)—A preventive
medicine against baby colic.

Quebra-pedra (Parietaria officinalis)—For kidney stones
and urinary tract relief. Patented by Fox Medical Center for the treatment
of hepatitis B.

Saracura-mirá—A cure-all elixir. Used to treat all kinds
of pain and also malaria

Sucuuba (Himathantus Sucuba)—Mosquito repellent. It can
be used in candles.

Suma or piriguara or paraguaia (Achietea salutaris)— Called
South American Ginseng. Used as tonic and to relieve the symptoms of menopause.
 

Want to know more? 
Try these places:
By
Alessandra Dalevi

Salegen is a new medicine sold in tablet form used in the treatment
of xerostoma, a disease also known as dry mouth syndrome in which the person
is not able to produce saliva. Its active ingredient is pilocarpine, a
substance extracted from jaborandi, a plant native to Northeastern
Brazil. The Brazilian Indians have known about jaborandi’s therapeutic
properties for generations. The American lab that developed the new drug
could have saved itself a lot of research and aggravation by just knowing
what jaborandi means: in Tupi-Guarani dialect the word means “slobber-mouth
plant” and the shrub-like tree has been used since immemorial times by
the natives for that: inducing salivation.

Pilocarpus jaborandi is an integral part of Brazilian folk medicine.
Caboclos (non-Indian jungle residents) and Indians prepare a tea
with its leaves and drink it as a diuretic or to induce sweat. Diabetics
and asthma sufferers use it as expectorant and stimulant via an infusion
made with the powdered leaves. Arthritis and pleurisy—a lung inflammation—have
also been treated with jaborandi. And when applied to the scalp,
a potion made with the leaves is believed to prevent baldness. Merck Laboratory
has marketed a product made from jaborandi called Policarpina, which
is used in the treatment of glaucoma.

All in all, the little Amazon tree is nature’s miracle drug like hundreds
of others whose secrets many times are only known by shamans who have been
passing this oral knowledge from generation to generation. When the first
Europeans landed in the Americas, the indigenous peoples from the region,
utilizing plants and other natural substances had already developed a sophisticated
medical system that included diagnosis and treatment of all kinds of diseases.

With the skyrocketing prices of developing new drugs and a seeming exhaustion
of the traditional allopathic medicine, more and more laboratories around
the world are showing interest in this wealth of folk medicine knowledge.
The costs of researching the medicinal powers of plants are far less than
trying to produce synthetic drugs. Besides, the sheer number of different
chemicals that exist in the Amazon, for example, dwarfs the capacity that
scientist have of creating new products

Brazilians have been noticing foreigners’ covetous eyes on their natural
and floral wealth and many people think the country is being robbed by
unscrupulous biopirates, be it under the disguise of missionary or scientific
expeditions, be it through multinationals claiming a stake in this wealth
often times considered mankind’s public domain patrimony. Many companies
have also used the argument that Brazil has no right to demand compensation
and royalties for its resources when the country is an infamous pirate
itself producing medicines patented overseas without paying any royalties
to its creators. This problem, however, has been addressed recently by
the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, which has passed a law recognizing
foreign patents for several products including pharmaceutical ones.

Among Brazilian herbal products widely used in the country, santo
daime (Vine Banisteriopsis) and quebra-pedra (Parietaria
officinalis) have been patented in the U.S.. The first substance, extracted
from a vine, and also known as jagupe and ayahuasca, has
hallucinogenic properties and is used in connection with some Indian religious
rituals and some sects. The International Plant Medicine Corporation got
its patent. The quebra-pedra (stone breaker, literally), also known
as fura-paredes (walls piercer, literally) is prepared as an infusion
for kidney ailments. In the U.S., it became a medicine for hepatitis. In
Japan, an Amazon plant called muirapuama is being sold as a cure
for impotency and as an aphrodisiac.

In Canada, Biolink, a small and new company has patented rupununine,
a substance extracted from the seeds of bibiri (Octotea radioei),
an Amazon plant. Roraima’s Wapixana Indians use the substance as a contraceptive.
The Canadian lab hopes to develop a product that will fight tumors and
AIDS. Biolink also wants to patent cumaniol, a substance extracted from
a poison made from wild manioc, that is used to catch fishes in the Amazon.
The new product, according to the Canadian company, might be used to stop
the heart during some delicate surgeries.

Another herb abundant in Brazil has become a worldwide phenomenon being
touted as the natural Prozac. It is the Hypericum perforatum, better
known in Brazil as jasim, erva-de-são-joão,
or hipericão. In Germany, the product, which is taken as
a tea or in the form of tablets, is being prescribed by doctors 25 times
more than Prozac. German doctors just last year wrote 3 million prescriptions
for the product. The craze is also starting to catch up in the U.S.. In
Brazil, the herb is being commercialized under the name Extrato de Jasim
or Hipérico. A study published in the United States shows that only
2.4% of depressive patients treated with Hypericum presented side
effects, while side effects are common for more than 30% of those taking
Prozac.



SPECIES COLLECTION



It is estimated that the Third World countries with rainforests from which
natural resources and indigenous knowledge are being taken are denied $5.4
billion in royalties every year. How much are the rainforests worth? Hard
to say. A frequently mentioned estimate puts is at $43 billion just for
medicines made from plants . This amount was proposed by P. P. Principe
in the book The Economic Significance of Plants and Their Constituents
as Drugs published in 1989. As for the profits that are returned to
the natives, Darrell Posey, director of the Programme for Traditional Resource
Rights at the Oxford Centre for the Environment in Great Britain and researcher
for the Brazilian National Council for Science and Technology at the Goeldi
Museum in Belém, state of Pará, in Brazil, estimates them
at less than 0.001 percent.

While Brazil and many other Third World countries are still discussing
how to implement the decisions of Rio’s 1992 Earth Summit, with the U.S.
dragging its feet on ratifying those documents, the United States has become
a hotbed for biopiracy. More than 200 companies have been established here
to collect foreign material, an activity that is elegantly called bioprospection,
but others prefer to call biopiracy. These prospectors or pirates, who
explore everything from plants to human genes, have become a $60-million-a-year
industry in the U.S..

According to Luiz Frederico Arruda, a professor at Universidade de Manaus,
Amazonas state capital, at least 20,000 plant samples are taken from the
Amazon every year. “Biopiracy has two degrees,” said professor Laymert
Garcia from Unicamp (Universidade de Campinas), in the state of São
Paulo, in an interview with the weekly news magazine Veja. “In the
first one, taking advantage of a lack of legislation, they patent substances
from the forests, without due retribution as envisioned by international
treaties. In the second, they get the patent for something that is being
used freely. While the patent has legal value only in the country in which
it was registered, it is normal that the rest of the world ends up accepting
it.”

Brazilian Celso Fiorillo, a doctor in environment and author of Manual
do Direito Ambiental (Manual of Environmental Law) has denounced the
fact that Brazilian Indians are being used as guinea pigs and that the
country’s flora and fauna are being exploited by multinationals. In an
interview with the daily newspaper O Estado de São Paulo,
Fiorillo stated: “Groups that are economically stronger and possess high
technology enter the Amazon region in many different ways in search of
natural products. Afterwards, they industrialize them and resell them to
the Third World Country with infinitely superior prices.” He calls the
Genoma Project undertaken by the G7, the world’s seven richest capitalist
countries, a grave and dangerous sin because “it implies patenting life.”

Fiorillo calls biopiracy a serious breach of the country’s sovereignty.
“Globalization is the modern name for colonialism. There is a direct connection
between this neoliberal policy and the seizing of our environment’s wealth
by developed countries.” He also criticizes the Brazilian government for
paying lip service in defense of the Amazon to appease the press while
at same time cutting the staff in charge of guarding the forest. “The number
of public servants caring for the Amazon is ridiculous,” he says. “The
Ministry of the Environment and the Legal Amazon have been treated as mere
perfumery, although it is essential to maintain the Amazon’s sovereignty
and environment.” 



SUBTLE PIRACY



Biopiracy can be very sophisticated and hardly noticeable. Here is a classic
example. In 1988, the American magazine National Geographic published
an article about the medicinal uses of the tiki uba, a plant
used by the Amazon Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians. The people from Merck Pharmaceutical
read the story, studied the substance and started to develop a product
based on their “discovery”. No consideration or reward has been given to
the Urueu-Wau-Waus, who are on the brink of extinction.

Sérgio Ferreira, the president of SBPC (Sociedade Brasileira
para o Progresso da Ciência—Brazilian Society for the Progress of
Science), has denounced the exploitation of the natural and intellectual
resources of Brazil without due compensation. But he also recognizes that
part of the problem has to do with the Brazilian lack of initiative and
the absence of a reasonable policy of what to do with the country’s vast
resources.

Brazilian law against this kind of piracy has been vague and enforcement
of it is non-existent. In spite of that, times seem to be changing. Ruediger
von Heininghaus, 72, an Austrian naturalized Brazilian, for example, is
being prosecuted by the state of Acre accused of selling to German labs
the Kaxinawá Indians knowledge of medicinal plants. He is the president
of Selvaviva, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that maintains a plant
greenhouse in Acre. “I am innocent,” says von Heininghaus. “All I’ve done
was to help the Indians themselves who asked for my assistance.”

Biopiracy is nothing new in Brazil. The most infamous case is that of
Englishman Henry Alexander Wickham, who in 1876 stole rubber tree seeds,
hiding them between banana leaves leading to a new plantation of the Hevea
brasiliensis in the British colonies in Ceylon, Malaysia. In a few
decades the region would become the main exporter of latex, ruining in
the process the rubber tree-based Amazon economy. Wickham was knighted
by King George V and loathed by Brazil’s rubber barons who called him “the
Executioner of Amazonas.”

Long before that, right after the discovery of the land by the Portuguese
in 1500, the discoverers themselves and then other Europeans just stole
from the Indians the secret of how to extract a red pigment from pau-brasil
(brazil wood). Emblematic of today’s situation, in which flora and
fauna continue to disappear, the wood that gave Brazil its’ name has completely
disappeared, being preserved only in a few botanical gardens.



SOUNDING OUT



During the 1992 World Summit on Ecology in Rio, the 144 countries present
signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, a document establishing
that communities or countries must be paid royalties when companies develop
products based on their natural resources or indigenous knowledge. That
document stressed the role native populations have on conservation and
the fostering of biological diversity, recognizing “the close and traditional
dependence of many indigenous and local communities embodying traditional
lifestyles on biological resources.”

These peoples have not only taken from the land. They have contributed
to biodiversity by planting and transplanting. To describe how these apparently
wild places have been transformed by the Indians’ presence, the United
Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has coined
the term “cultural landscapes”.

This assertion has important implications for those defending the rights
of indigenous populations over certain knowledge or natural product. According
to the law, wild species are public domain and no one can claim them as
their property. If the case can me made, however, that they have been altered
by human presence, natives of certain areas can claim proprietary rights
over some species.

The World Council of Indigenous Peoples, although somewhat tortuously,
defines indigenous peoples as “population groups who from ancient times
have inhabited the lands where they live, who are aware of having a character
of their own, with social traditions and means of expression that are linked
to the country inherited from their ancestors, with a language of their
own, and having certain essential and unique characteristics which confer
upon them the strong conviction of belonging to a people, who have an identity
in themselves and should be thus regarded by others.”

Rio’s Earth Summit has helped the indigenous peoples worldwide to get
better organized and define their objectives and ways of achieving them.
Since then, they have been active in proposing and discussing laws that
might help them, through their own NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations)
such as COICA, the World Rainforest Movement, the World Council of Indigenous
Peoples and the Indigenous Peoples’ Biodiversity Network.

In a 1994 statement, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations
of the Amazon Basin (COICA) has expressed what they think about the need
to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights: “We indigenous peoples need a system
of protection and recognition of our resources and knowledge (…) which
is in conformity with our world view and contains formulas that will prevent
appropriation of our resources and knowledge.” 



WHAT TO DO?



Five years have passed since Eco-92 and Brazil has yet to pass a law that
would make the country profit from the resolutions made at that summit
meeting. The question has been dragging in Congress without any hint of
an agreement soon. Senator Marina Silva, who is from the state of Acre
and who worked as a rubber tapper herself as a child, has introduced legislation
that generated plenty of debates.

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, which constitute the
Andean Pact, are more advanced than Brazil in finding ways to stop biopiracy
and at the same time have started getting paid for their natural resources.
Other countries such as Chile, Costa Rica, and the Philippines have already
passed legislation dealing with the subject.

In the bill drafted by the Brazilian legislature, articles 18 to 29
deal with the issue of intellectual property. The articles establish among
other things that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their knowledge
and formulas a secret. The bill also recognizes their right to collectively
apply for protection under the law of international property rights. Indigenous
peoples would also be able to share research data, patents and would have
a guaranteed monetary reward for products derived from their knowledge.

Congressmen are having a hard time, however, agreeing on what is fair
compensation and who should receive royalties in case a product is marketed.
Should it be the Indians, the area where the substance or the knowledge
was found, the state, the nation? While the lawmen delay their resolution,
biopirates feel free to roam the country.

In England, the United Kingdom Royal Botanical Garden, which has thousands
of plants from the Amazon region, has stopped its research with Brazilian
plants alleging that the murky legal situation would not guarantee that
they have the rights over a product once it is developed. Tropical plants
from Costa Rica and Chile continue to be researched since there is clear
legislation in those countries and they will receive part of future royalties. 



ON THE MARKET



Interested in buying the DNA of Amazon Indians? Samples of them are as
close as any researcher’s computer keyboard, for as little as $500. Installed
at http://arginine.umdnj.edu in the Internet, the American New-Jersey-based
company Coriell Institute for Medical Research has what it calls the human
genetic mutant cell repository, which is sponsored by the National Institute
of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), DNA samples from the Karitiana and
the Suruí, two indigenous groups from the state of Rondônia.
Since the Karitiana have heard that their blood is making money they started
demanding compensation from anyone trying to draw blood from them.

Some experts believe that all that interest about these Indians has
to do with the fact that they hardly have malaria, a common disease throughout
the Amazon. Their DNA might have the key for a cure. Indian blood sleuths
have also been encouraged by the news that German laboratory Boehringer
Ingelheim bought for $70 million genetic material from an African tribe
collected by U.S. company Sequana Therapeutics, which believes to have
found the key to cure asthma. There was no compensation for the tribesmen.

The Coriell case is not an isolated one. It is part of the worldwide
effort put together by the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) since 1988.
The work is being coordinated by the Human Genome Diversity Project, which
intends to collect blood from small and isolated communities threatened
with extinction. While part of the research aims is to find ways to improve
human health, some groups close to indigenous populations criticize the
project for its methods, and have dubbed it the “human vampire project”.
There have been many instances in which the blood was made available in
the market after having been collected without previous consent of the
people involved. Oddly enough, the U.S. Department of Commerce has applied
for a patent for cell lines developed from the blood of a Papua New Guinea
tribe. Listed as inventors of the product are the U.S. government’s own
scientists and the anthropologist who introduced them to the tribesmen. 



GIVING SOME BACK



Today, at least some companies, with a social conscience have been trying
to pay back in some way the communities from which they derive new products.
Case in point, there is U.S.-based Aveda Corp,, a cosmetic company that
utilizes only natural ingredients and is using the jenipapo tree
(Genipa americana) to get the rare blue pigment for some of its
700 products. The firm is compensating the Guarani-Kaiowa Indians who helped
them, by building bamboo and sapé grass huts for them to
live in, and planting 100,000 trees in their reservation in Dourados, in
the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The benefits shall amount to $50,000.

Few companies have been so active in developing medicinal products from
the Brazilian flora as San Francisco-based Shaman Pharmaceuticals. Two
of these products that use plants from the Amazon—Provir and Virend—are
in their last phase of development. Both utilize crotão latex.

Provir, which was already subjected to a battery of tests in the first
quarter of 1997, is designed to treat chronic diarrhea. Other tests with
AIDS patients suffering from diarrhea are being conducted right now. As
for Virend, it might put an end to the search of an up-to-now elusive cure
for genital herpes, a disease that afflicts 30 million Americans.

Shaman has already researched close to 7,000 plants from the Amazon.
According to the company, when they market a new product derived from tropical
plants they reward in some way the community where the plant was found.
In a recent interview with the Brazilian daily Folha de São Paulo,
Megan Ravel, communications director for the company, talked about Shaman’s
work in Brazil: “For the most part our experiments go nowhere, but if we
are able to develop at least one drug that works we can consider ourselves
victorious.”

As for paying back the communities involved in the research, Megan said:
“It depends on how much we make with a discovery and it also depends on
what the community needs. We might build a school, a hospital, a nursery,
or something else. But the property rights for the medicine are ours because
we were the ones who developed it.”

Despite controversy and accusations of abusing the Indian population’s
good faith, the London-based cosmetic manufacturer Body Shop, which has
a chain of stores throughout the world, continues its joint effort with
the Kayapo Indians. They buy annually $160,000 in Brazil nuts from them
for the manufacturing of shampoos and conditioners.

There are many people who believe that mankind in general and the pharmaceutical
industry in particular are indebted to the healers and shamans from the
tropics. Mark J. Plotkin, an American ethnobotanist who wrote Tales
of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in
the Amazon Rain Forest , is one who thinks so. “Every time a shaman
dies, it is as if a library burned down,” he says. Dr. Plotkin is the vice
president of Washington-based Conservation International and former director
of the plant program at the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

He is in favor of developing alternative strategies to foster tropical
forestry studies while helping native populations. According to him, Shaman
Pharmaceuticals and Healing Forest Conservancy (a non-profit organization
that pledges to return all profits from new medicines derived from the
forest to the indigenous people) are the wave of the future and an example
to be followed. 



THE NATIONAL TEAM



Instead of just crying foul and complaining about foreign robbers stealing
their natural resources, some Brazilian researchers and institutes, as
reported by the daily Folha de São Paulo, are trying themselves
to unchain the curative properties of Brazilian herbs and plants. There
are at least a dozen products being tested, from malaria and diabetes medicines
to contraceptives and potions for poisonous snakebites. Chemist Benjamin
Gilbert from Fundação Oswaldo Cruz in São Paulo, for
example, has been testing the picão (Bidens pilosa) tea,
a popular recipe in the Amazon for those afflicted with malaria or hepatitis
B.

Also in search of a cure for malaria, the Centro de Plantas Medicinais
(Medicinal Plants Center) from Amapá’s Instituto de Estudos e Pesquisas
(Studies and Researches Institute) has been studying a recipe devised by
the Waipi Indians, who use an oil made from the plant andiroba (Carapa
guianensis). The same group is also in the final phase of tests with
60 diabetics who are being treated with capsules made from pata-de-vaca
with promising results, according to the researchers.

At the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)a group of researchers
led by chemist Ângelo da Cunha Pinto has been studying the effects
of sucuuba (Imathantus sucuuba) in the treatment of tumors.
In lab tests the substance was able to repair the yeast’s DNA. Walter Mors,
another UFRJ’s chemist, who is retired, for 10 years has been studying
the anti-ophidic properties of erva-botão (Eclipta prostata).
Tests with lab mice were very promising and the solution prepared with
the herb, according to Mors, was effective in neutralizing the poison of
every kind of snake he tested. Better yet, he has found out that the potion
can be taken as a preventive medicine. “If any laboratory decides to invest,”
he announced, “we might have a commercial product in five years.” 



SALVATION PLAN



In February, the Environment Ministry presented to the World Bank a project
to protect Brazilian biodiversity in the Amazon and the Mata Atlântica,
a strip of forest along Brazil’s coast. Together they comprise an area
of 168.7 million hectares, 19% of the national territory, harboring more
than 75% of the country’s biodiversity.

The plan is to create seven ecological corridors, joining big conservation
pockets, national parks, Indian reservations, and ecological stations.
The first two corridors should be established this month at a cost of $44
million. One of them is the area of the Mata Atlântica between the
states of Bahia and Espírito Santo, the other is the Amazon central
corridor, which includes Jaú’s National Park and areas in the Solimões
River basin. Indigenous peoples and other people inside the area, including
farmers will be encouraged to engage in activities that preserve the forest
and allow a sustainable development.

Landowners will have the extra incentive of lower taxes if they don’t
destroy the jungle. The so-called Pilot Program for the Protection of the
Brazilian Tropical Forests, known for short as PP/G7, is being financed
by the World’s Bank General Environmental Facility (GEF) and a consortium
of European banks.

The plan should face challenges in its implementation in several areas
in the states of Acre, Pará, and Roraima where the land is being
occupied by posseiros (squatters) and garimpeiros (precious
stones prospectors). Some areas of the Mata Atlântica were left out
of the plan because the expropriation price would be too high. In this
case, the government decided, through fiscal incentives and special rural
credit, to encourage farmers to establish private reserves of the natural
patrimony in which the area would be kept intact and open to ecotourism. 



SHORT LIVES



Amid all the dispute about the Brazilians Indians, few people know that
they are in dismal shape, having a life expectancy comparable only to the
poorest countries in Africa. Worse yet, between 1993 and 1995, while life
expectancy increased in the whole world, Brazilian Indians had their rate
diminished by 5.6 years. According to the Instituto de Medicina Tropical
de Manaus (Manaus Tropical Medicine Institute), the IMTM, a Brazilian Indian
in 1995 should expect to live an average of 42.6 years compared to 67 years
for the Brazilian population as a whole.

The Amazon Indian lives even less than his counterpart in other areas
of the country. Those at the Javari river valley, for example, have a life
expectancy of a mere 24.5 years. The main causes of death in this region
are malaria and hepatitis, both brought by loggers who invade their territory.
The Yanomami warriors do not have a much better lot in life. They live
on average 34.1 years since garimpeiros started to make contact with them
in 1987.

Rômulo César Sabóia Moura, the scientist in charge
of the research for the IMTM, attributes this situation to the little medical
care given the Indians by Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio—National
Foundation for the Indian), a government entity. While the so-called SUS
(Sistema Único de Saúde—Uniform Health System) spends a meager
average of $100 per Brazilian a year, Funai invests five times less: $22
per Indian a year. It is estimated that there are 329,000 Indians in Brazil
today, down from 2 to 5 million at the time the Europeans arrived.
 

 THE 

NATURAL 

WAY
There is a renewed interest in medicinal plants all over the world. The
World Health Organization (WHO) now has a list including 150 plants that
its experts consider therapeutic. And in Brazil right now there is a boom
of natural medicine. At least 5 million Brazilians use homeopathy as their
first choice for treatment, creating an annual half a billion dollar market.

While in the US there are no more than 3,000 homeopathic doctors, in
Brazil there are 13,000 of them. In 1982 there were a mere 300. No other
country with the exception of India has more homeopaths. And, in the last
20 years, the number of homeopathic pharmacies has skyrocketed from 10
to 1600. Two thousand pharmacists produce 3,000 medicinal formulas using
minerals, animals, and most of all plants. There are also 250 dentists
and 100 veterinarians specialized in homeopathy.

Modern pharmacology does not ignore the therapeutic effects of plants.
Forty percent of the time industrialized medicines use plants as their
active ingredient, although generally in a synthesized more concentrated
formula. The active ingredient in aspirin, for example, was originally
found in the bark of willow trees.

According to the American publication The Nutrition Business Journal,
60% of Yankee physicians have on occasion referred a patient to alternative
treatments, including naturopathy, herbalism, and homeopathy. In the U.S.,
the market for herbal supplements grossed over $700 million in 1995 and
it is expected that this amount will grow to $1.6 by the year 2000.

Botanists believe that from 35,000 to 70,000 plant species are used
throughout the world as medicine, most of them growing in tropical forests.
And in the U.S. there are at least 120 widely used prescription drugs made
from 95 species of plants, 39 of which are originally from the rainforest.

Roughly 1/4 of all pharmaceutical products in the market today use substances
from the rainforest. Among widely used products based on plants we have
aspirin, morphine, and codeine. There is also digitalis, used as a heart
medicine; curare, as a muscle relaxant; and colchicin, prescribed as an
anti-inflammatory.

 IN THE BEGINNING
Five hundred years ago, 14% of the earth’s surface was covered by rainforest.
Since then, an area of 3.5 million square miles of these forests, roughly
equivalent to the size of the United States, has been destroyed. The rainforest
today occupies only 6% of the earth. As a consequence of this destruction
it is estimated that 1.5 million life form species were lost and 50,000
more continue to be destroyed every year. All this was done and continues
to be done in the name of progress and allegedly for economic reasons,
even though studies have shown, for example, that 2.4 acres of land in
the Amazon can produce $1,000 of annual income when clear cut, but generate
$6,800 a year when left intact.

Despite all the destruction, it is believed that the rainforests still
preserve 30 million different species, roughly half of all life forms on
earth and 2/3 of all plants. This without mentioning the importance of
these forests to the earth’s weather and atmosphere. A third of the world’s
tropical forests are in Brazilian territory and, as for the Amazon forest,
two thirds of it are in Brazil. The country still boasts the Pantanal (the
world’s largest wetland), the Cerrado (the world’s most biologically diverse
Savannah), and the Mata Atlântica, an even richer life laboratory
than the Amazon, despite its much smaller size.

At the time of Brazil’s discovery, the Mata Atlântica, the strip
of luscious forest covering the entire Brazilian coast, occupied an area
equivalent to 12% of today’s national territory. In its widest area the
strip was as large as 300 miles. Today this treasure has been reduced to
10% of its original size. From 1985 to 1990 alone 1.2 billion trees were
cut. Its destruction is a textbook case of how to dilapidate an inestimable
patrimony.

The devastation accompanied the several cycles of the Brazilian economy,
all of them much more interested in immediate profit instead of a long-term
planned investment. First was the brazil wood cycle that would cut this
valuable tree destroying in the process 6,000 sq. km of the forest. In
the XVIII century, the discovery of gold and precious stones gave the jungle
a respite while 2,000 tons of gold were dug up. During the sugar cane and
coffee cycles as well as the cocoa tree plantation cycle in the state of
Bahia, huge areas of jungle would be burned down to make room for these
crops. From 1.5 million sq. km 500 years ago, the Mata Atlântica
today is just a sad shadow of its previous self, with just 95,000 sq. km
left.

Despite all the recent rhetoric in Brazil about preserving the green,
Brazilians were and still are too eager to cut trees. Not before the 80s
did the first green groups start to voice their outrage and the theme became
a national issue. In Brazil, the jungle and backwardness have always been
equated. Caipira and caipora, two words to designate a rustic
man without culture have their roots in Tupi terms that referred to inhabitants
of the forest.

“The Amazon’s chemiodiversity is much bigger than the forest’s visible
part,” says Massuo Kato from Universidade de São Paulo’s (USP) Chemistry
Institute. Kato has worked in the development of a new classification for
the Amazon’s vegetables based on the chemistry of its fruits. This should
help to find what is the best time for picking the fruit as well as indicate
which part of it has more active elements.

There are tens of millions of species in the world, according to scientists
speculations, even though they were able to describe less than 1.5 million
up to now, half of them living in rainforests. Some scientists believe
that that proportion would grow to 90% in favor of the tropical forest
if a complete tally of all species was ever accomplished. Brazil is home
to the greatest number of insects species, as well as of terrestrial vertebrates,
amphibians, primates, freshwater fish, and flowering plants. With a handful
of other countries, it is classified by scientists as a megadiversity land.

 

 

GET OFF OUR JUNGLE
Most of all, the military are today in the forefront of a movement to keep
foreigners out of the Brazilian jungle. Some of them are even ready to
go to war, literally, in defense of the rainforest against what they call
the “international cupidity”.

“We can start a guerrilla war over there as the Vietnamese have done,”
said reformed colonel Gélio Augusto Fregapani at the end of last
year in Rio, during a forum called “Amazon – Threat of Territorial Losses,
Occupation, and Development,” which was part of the Third National Encounter
on Strategic Studies, a meeting organized by the Escola Superior de Guerra
( Higher School of War).

It was a rare instance of the right and left putting aside their differences
to join efforts against a common enemy. Former Army minister Leônidas
Pires Gonçalves was there as well as Roraima’s governor Neudo Campos,
and historian Lygia Garner, who teaches at Southeast Texas University.

The assembly’s indignation was palpable when lieutenant-colonel, Marcus
Vinicius Belfort Teixeira, who at 43 is considered one of the youngest
most active military voices today, denounced the U.S. effort to internationalize
the Amazon. And the mood was belligerent when the Air Force officer told
about a sticker circulating on car windows in London that say: “Fight for
the forest. Burn a Brazilian.”

According to Belfort, the Brazilian government is demarcating indigenous
areas on the frontier with other South American countries—something he
considers extremely dangerous to national security—succumbing to international
pressure mainly from the United States and Germany. Americans and Germans,
according to Teixeira and other military personnel, are interested in the
mineral-rich area’s subsoil.

 

 

AMERICA’S 

WONDER DRUGS

Coca

A sacred plant used as food and folk medicine in the Andes for a variety
of purposes including an anesthetic and calcium supplement. Coca (Erythroxylum
coca) means simply tree in the Aymara dialect. It was in 1860 that German
chemist Carl Köler isolated the cocaine and found its virtues as a
local anesthetic. After that, coca and cocaine started to be used for a
variety of ailments and were added to several tonics including Coca-Cola.
Curare

A poisonous concoction with several plants whose formula was kept a
secret for centuries. Alexander von Humboldt was the first European to
witness and describe the way the ingredients were put together, in 1800.
But curare would start being used as an anesthetic only in 1943, four years
after its active ingredient, the d-tubocurarine was isolated.
Quinine

Used as an infusion by the Amazon natives in the treatment of fever.
Derived from the cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis) it was used
in the 20s in the US for the treatment of malaria. Known as Indian fever
bark the product was used in Europe since the early 1500s. One century
later its name had been changed to Jesuit fever bark. The demand for the
cinchona almost made it extinct. By smuggling it from South America to
Java, in 1865, Englishman Charles Ledger saved the plant. Sixty years later,
more than 95% of the world’s quinine was coming from Java.

 

A Natural 

First-Aid Kit
Ayahuasca or caapi or santo daime or jagupe (Banisteria caapi)—Stimulant
of the senses, with claims to cure cancer. Patented by International Plant
Medicine Corporation.

Bibiri or beberu (Ocotea radioei)— Used as contraceptive
and as a HIV and small tumors inhibitor.

Cabacinha (Luffa operculata)—Mixed with cachaça
(sugar-cane hard liquor) it is used against sinusitis and as a nasal
decongestant. As an unguent it is applied on tumors.

Erva botão (Eclipta prostata)—An antidote to snake
bites.

Erva de jabuti or aperta-ruão (Leandra lacunosa)—Good
against diabetes.

Guaraná (Paulinia cupania)— Source of caffeine,
it fights fatigue. Used in soft drinks.

Hortelã roxo—Used as solution for ear pain.

Jaborandi (Pilocarpus jaborandi)—Taken as a tea
as a diuretic or to induce sweat. Also used in treatment of diabetes, asthma,
arthritis, and baldness.

Japana (Eupatoriu ayapana)—Leaves are rubbed on insects
bites.

Muirapuama (Ptychopetalum olacoides)- It is reputed
to be an aphrodisiac. Also used for arthritis and as a stimulant.

Oriza—Tea is taken for heart ailments

Pau d’Arco (Tabebuia impetiginosa) A medicine for candida,
athletes foot and also used as a natural anti-biotic. It has also been
used against cancer.

Picão (Bidens Pilosa)—For the treatment of malaria
and hepatitis

Puxuri or puxiri or pixurim (Licaria Puchurymajor)—A preventive
medicine against baby colic.

Quebra-pedra (Parietaria officinalis)—For kidney stones
and urinary tract relief. Patented by Fox Medical Center for the treatment
of hepatitis B.

Saracura-mirá—A cure-all elixir. Used to treat all kinds
of pain and also malaria

Sucuuba (Himathantus Sucuba)—Mosquito repellent. It can
be used in candles.

Suma or piriguara or paraguaia (Achietea salutaris)— Called
South American Ginseng. Used as tonic and to relieve the symptoms of menopause.

 

Want to know more? 

Try these places:
Aubrey Organics, 4419 North Manhattan, Tampa, FL 33614 – (813) 877-4186

Avalon Natural Cosmetics , 1129 Industrial Ave, Petaluma, CA 94952 –
(707) 769-5120

Aveda Corporation, 4000 Pheasant Ridge Drive, Minneapolis, MN 55449
– (800) 283-3224

Biogenesis Consulting, Dr. Tony C. Leite, N.D., PO Box 902211, Palmdale,
CA 93590 – (805) 274-6179

Conservation International, 1015 18th Street NW, Washington DC 20036
– (800) 429-5660

Coriell Institute for Medical Research, 401 Haddon Avenue, Camden, NJ
08103 – (609) 966-7377

FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Office of Colors and
Cosmetics, 200 C Street SW, Washington, DC 20204 – (202) 205-4494

Herb Research Foundation, 1007 Pearl St., Suite 200, Boulder, CO 80302
– Tel.: (303) 449-2265

Herbal Healer Academy, HC 32, Box 97-B, Mountain View, AR 72560 – (501)
269-4177

Merck & Co Inc, 1 Merck Drive, Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889 – (908)
423-100 – http://www.merck.com

Paul Penders Company, 1340 Commerce Street, Petaluma, CA 94954 – (707)
763-5828

Rainforest Action Network, 450 Sansome Street Suite 700, San Francisco,
CA 94111 – (415) 398-4404

Shaman Pharmaceuticals Inc., 213 East Grand Avenue, South San Francisco,
CA 94080 – (415) 952-7070

United Plant Savers, PO Box 420, East Barre, VT 05649 – (802) 479-9825

World Wildlife Fund, 1250 24th Street NW Suite 500, Washington DC 20037
– (202) 293-4800

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