Jungle’s herbal laboratory

It’s time Brazilian publishers prepare careful translations of books such as
Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, by the ethnobotanist James J. Plotkin who tells
stories and presents a plethora of data of his several trips to the Amazon. Very few
Brazilians undertake the necessary studies to understand our flora and instead
they resent any foreign contribution. Thanks to that more than 95 percent of the
entire Brazilian flora is unknown, chemically and pharmacologically.

Wilson Velloso

“Arthritis is killing my stomach,” said Dr. Knipplauch, my old professor of history of symbols and semiotics, and
a great friend.

“How come?” I asked, surprised with the apparent non sequitur.

“I take drugs to subdue my arthritis, and they give me heartburn,” he explained. “I wish you could give me a
herbal medicine, one of those Brazilian miracles you boast so much of.”

But the truth is that although I have used hot infusions of avocado leaves as a diuretic and taken many a spoonful
of water-cress cough syrup — both with good results — I knew too little about Amazon plants to help Karl. But since
he didn’t accept an “I dunno” for an answer, I tried to find out and did some research.

Trouble is that for a devoted conservationist like me there is always a paramount caveat when dealing
with development. After all, I am a native of a country where chemical development perpetrated the utmost horror:
Cubatão, a place whose name is always followed by the handle “the most polluted town on earth.” Not far from Santos
(state of São Paulo), on whose beaches I spent many happy boyhood summers.

It’s a big tough job when you consider that more than 95 percent of the entire Brazilian flora is unknown,
chemically and pharmacologically speaking. Indians and many other natives, however, have a pretty clear idea of which
plants are good for what purpose, how to use them, and where to find them. In practically every Brazilian town there is
a hervanaria, a well-stocked herb shop.

Not all herbs sold are medicinal. Some are like spices, others give out pleasant aromas. There are a few, such as
arruda (rue), whose purpose is to be mixed in incantations, burnt, ground, packed in small magic sachets for good luck
and protection against the evil eye, curses, falls, accidents, blows, beatings, snake bites, etc.

A few traditional herbs are quite well known in America and throughout the First World. That’s the case
of ipecacuanha, which — its name shortened to ipec and its roots made into a syrup — is traditionally taken as an
emetic, purgative, etc. Many American herbaria
and pharmaceutical mail companies sell and recommend
pau d’arco (bow wood); its bark, ground into powder made into capsules, is seen as being bactericidal. Another plant quite widely
used in cosmetics and so on, is babosa (“drooly herb”) or

aloés, the Aloe vera which grows all over the Americas. A
curious reversal is the case of witch hazel, a vegetable agent made into liniments and compresses for bruises,
inflammations and other swellings, mosquito bites and even dysentery: in Brazil it is known only by its scientific name —
Hamamelis virginica.

Quinine, a drug extracted from the bark of the South American
cinchona, was instrumental in finally conquering
the scourge of malaria that killed millions the world over. From the humble
mamona (Ricinus vulgaris) comes the
castor bean oil, a mild purgative still in wide household usage. From the quick-acting
curare poisons, with which South American Indians laced their
hunting and warring arrowheads, scientists have evolved several useful
medicines for various purposes.

More recently, Western researchers have been looking into the possible healing virtues of plants such as the
chapéu de couro (Echinodorus macrophyllum);
erva-contra-vermes (Spigelia anthelmica) for intestinal worms;
erva-contraveneno (Cynanchum vin-cetoxum) sometimes called white swallow-wort, to treat poisoning; and a wide
variety of leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds, saps, latex, barks, roots applied in the treatment of fevers, headaches,
toothaches, earaches, head and foot lice, kidney, liver and stomach ailments, insomnia, bruises, sores (including those caused
by VD).

 

Other well-known tropical plants are sources of fibers such as
agave, sisal, caroá,
henequen used in shipping cordage, ropes, packing and industry in general. I shall pass over the familiar
maize (Indian corn), potato, tomato,
chocolate, abacate (Brazilian version of
ahuacatl — avocado –, a Náhuatl word), and the South American

abacaxi or ananás which gave birth to the opulent pineapple industry of Hawaii. Or the
caju (cashew) that generated extensive
plantations and industry in Northern Africa and tropical Asia. Or the
seringueira (Hevea brasiliensis) that made possible all
the rubber plantations of South-East Asia.

It would be unfair to say that the New World continent only lost in its trade with the Old, as millions of
Europeans brought their skills, ideas and ideals to the American soil; as well as horses, cattle, wheat, fruit.

But it was a skewered trade: native Americans — and most specially the rainforest denizens — lost heavily while
city-dwellers gained. The Indians lost when their lands were invaded and taken over, their natural riches ripped off,
their rivers polluted with tailings of mercury and other chemicals used for mining, their forests cut down and burnt,
their game overhunted and often decimated.

They also lost when the newcomers brought strange diseases for which their medicine men had no cure; they lost
when well-intentioned missionaries duped them into substituting new beliefs for the old ones that had served them well
for so many centuries. New and often incomprehensible rules in lieu of the traditional ones that allowed them to live
in peace with nature, even when they made war on each other.

The newcomers brought, in addition to their greed, the “right of might,” and techniques that transformed
fairly commonplace plants into sources of dangerous alkaloids. Coca was an ordinary bush whose leaves, chewed in
nature or innocently brewed into hot mates, provided the people of the
páramos with succor to stand the Andean cold,
the altitude discomfort, aches and colic of empty bellies, the fatigue of the heavy burdens. The fake “Caucasian”
applied his chemistry to make cocaine paste, cocaine powder, and crack. Western civilization and technology triumphed!

 

No wonder Theodor Koch wrote about the “pestilential stench of Western civilization” while other scientists
and explorers compared the opening of jungle roads as “the rapid metastasis of a devouring cancer.” Cutting
these estradas para onças (highways for jaguars) — as many in Brazil call them — is one of the last chapters of
the destruction. Road spurs make majestic but delicate trees and plants vulnerable to the onslaught of the hasty
millionaire wanna-bees. For years, timbermen lamented not being able to haul away a beautiful rosewood tree, rather than
just distill locally its aromatic rose oil and abandoning the tree. Roads are inducements and instruments to cut down
more trees, with nary a thought of reforestation. Giants of the forest are mercilessly downed to get at birds nests, carve
out cores, barks, graceful exotic flowers.

Several crimes against nature have been committed, in addition to the murders and the massacres of Indians
and settlers. An American millionaire industrialist floated all the way from Japan a complete paper mill to be located
in Amapá state. Because he needed fast-growing trees of standard hardness, he had the rain forest completely razed
and the area planted with gmerelina. But when the old trees went, the bugs died, and when the bugs died the birds
flew away. The fast-growing intruder tree had no time to grow before it was attacked by invading bugs and parasites
which, having no natural enemies to control them, ate the gmerelina. Taps for another technological triumph!

It is a real pity that Brazilians should know so little about their own country and have so little love for it (besides
soccer, of course). In several ways they act like dogs in a manger: very few undertake the necessary studies and, by and
large, they resent the “foreign interlopers,” the devoted scientists without whose books little can be learned. In the
best tradition of Charles Darwin, Linneus and other Europeans, several Americans have visited the Amazônia — an
area larger than the United States and parceled out to Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana,
Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

Instead of translating so much US pulp trash, Brazilian publishers could demonstrate their patriotic business
acumen by having decent, thorough and careful translations of books such as
Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, by the ethnobotanist James J. Plotkin, Ph.D. A jewel of a book that reads as a first-class novel. Plotkin tells stories of
his several trips to the Amazon region to collect vegetal specimens and skillfully weaves into it timely and well
researched pharmacological, historical, anthropological, sociological, medical, zoological, geographical, and economic data
on the Amazon world and its inhabitants. A labor of intense and intelligent love that, under the present
circumstances, seems fated to lead to melancholy about the future of the rain forest.

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