Tribal cures for modern ailments

An Amerindian tribe in Surinam has reached a deal with the outside world to allow the collecting of plant samples in their forest for medicinal research. The agreement comes as pharmaceutical companies are returning to the Earth's forests in their search for new medicines to cure some of mankind's biggest killers, such as Aids, cancer and malaria. This is called bioprospecting. But randomly collecting plants is not the most effective way to do this.

According to Conservation International, (CI), an American environmental organisation, if plant collectors work alongside the tribe's shaman, or medicine man, they are 50% more likely to find an active compound. They say that over 74% of today's plant-derived medicines were previously used for similar purposes by indigenous people.

On the organisation's first bioprospecting trip with the Trio shaman Amasina, they found two plant species new to western science, and 14 other plants with previously unknown medicinal properties.

Conservation International have now drawn up a contract with the Trio, in the village of Kwamalasamutu, to go plant collecting for five years. Both parties, as well as the American pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, are part of the International Co-operative Biodiversity Group (ICBG).

Conservation International have initiated the bioprospecting programme as a way of providing economic alternatives to logging and mining in rainforests, and to help protect biodiversity and indigenous peoples' knowledge of traditional medicine. Stan Malone, director of CI-Surinam, led a delegation of ICBG representatives to Kwamalasamutu to present the bioprospecting contract to the granman, or chief, of the village. He explained every aspect of the agreement through an interpreter, using pictures and diagrams to show the process of drug development from shaman to pharmaceutical company.

There are critics of deals such as this. Pat Mooney, of Rural Advancement Foundation International, a non-governmental organisation seeking to conserve biodiversity, thinks these figures are usually too low. He is concerned that these tribes might not fully comprehend the implications of these agreements because their outlook on life is so different, and that there is no clear international legal framework to protect their rights in the long-term. He also doubts whether indigenous communities necessarily have the right to surrender plants that might grow in other countries too.

The Trio tribe were converted to Christianity by American missionaries in the 60s, but their lifestyle is still traditional. They hunt, fish, and tend small plantations. Their staple food is cassava, from which they make cassava bread and brew kasiri, cassava beer. They have access to western medicine at the government-run clinic, but if that fails then they turn to the shaman. There are very few shamen left in the village. In order to keep the knowledge alive two have started teaching basic plant knowledge in the village school. Amasina: Children want to learn about plant medicine

According to Amasina "the children want to learn about plant medicine because they want to be able to cure people, but of course the money makes sense to them too, they want to profit from the knowledge". This village barely has enough electricity and running water at the moment, and they rely on the Surinam Government for goods such as fuel.

They say they want development, by which they usually mean western luxury goods such as refrigerators and televisions. The children love Nike sports clothes and trainers. The bioprospecting agreement they have signed could potentially provide these things. However they are coming to realise that they must preserve the ancient knowledge they cultivated in the past in order to change their lives in the future (News Front,Saturday, 28 August, 1999, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK) .

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