Reclaiming Nature’s Knowledge Base

Reclaiming Nature’s Knowledge Base

By Hwaa Irfan

I grew up in a mixed environment of both traditional and modern (orthodox medicine). It always amazed me how readily my parent’s generation so readily took to the General Practitioner as god of their health, ignoring all the signs and symptoms that they were more familiar with than the doctor. It also caused me great alarm to see how members amongst my own generation suffered as a result of stereotypes arm-in-arm with the S.U.S laws of the U.K. detrimentally at the hands of medications that they did not need leading to long term mental ill-health.

Today, equally with alarm, given the challenges that modern medicine has faced in terms of its proclaimed right over human health, and how people in the West have been discovering and reclaiming their own health that the West in terms of trade and governance still impose on first world/developing countries the notion that modern medicine is the god of health, is the only way, and how far too many peoples of the first world/developing countries accept that while the raw materials that they produce contribute greatly to the development of modern and alternative medicines in the West. It is the cloud with the silver lining that has made modern medicine too expensive for certain sections of the peoples of first world/developing countries, which has made them reliant on what they already have i.e. traditional/natural medicine. And like in most places of the world there is a need to tackle those who exploit that need via their poor knowledge base for profit jeopardizing the status of traditional/natural medicine in their respective countries.

Traditional/natural medicine not only provides an affordable means of reclaiming one’s health, but it also provides control over ones health as an individual. At the same time, it provides nations of the first/developing world the opportunity to recognize the wealth of what they do have instead of reaching out for what they think they do not have, and for those countries to recognize the level of biopiracy which reaps the benefits, while those countries feel compelled to subject themselves to an unaffordable system of health.

The World Health Organization, W.H.O, despite its misdemeanors over the H1N1 pseudo-pandemic (accused by 11 European countries for being complicit with drug companies to promote the use of untested drugs by populations), has begun to recognize the virtue of traditional/natural medicines and have called for international and national policy makers to establish a working partnership between modern and traditional/natural medicine for the progress and development of a comprehensive global public health.

Good Practice in Progress

Patenting has become a serious issue from food – medicine via the attempts of dominant nations to apply TRIPS which fundamentally excludes the right of ownership over indigenous knowledge and resources while promoting the application and trade thereof in Genetically Modified foods, and the western pharmaceutical and agricultural industry. In order to find some common base, some countries have taken a step towards a workable partnership between the indigenous knowledge base and modern/allopathic medicine by qualifying the indigenous knowledge base as “prior art” in the public domain through Western patent offices. India is a country that has battled long and hard with the U.S. specifically when it comes to TRIPS over the products of its soil, and as a result has developed a sophisticated system, the Traditional Digital Library, TKDL in response to biopiracy to protect its indigenous knowledge base, and at the same time to apply safety measures over the application of its traditional knowledge base by its own practitioners. The Neem Tree is just one of India’s “fruits” that cost them millions of dollars and years to make the European Patent Office revoke a patent on the “Neem Tree”, a mosquito repellent, on the basis of prior use. In South Africa, where there has been much biopiracy, the Pan-African Natural Products Library (p-ANPL), a consortium of scientists across the continent, are aiming to set up their own database which will involve the awesome task of physically collecting all the plant types, and the knowledge base to go with it. In Cusco, Peru, steps have been taken to outlaw biopiracy, including the patenting of genes, and China, Ghana, Malaysia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Thailand are taking steps to protect their biodiversity by establishing a database.

Another step that has been taken is ABS, the system of access and benefit sharing, which allows for access to traditional knowledge with an expectation to share in any modified use of their indigenous knowledge base. An example of this is amongst the Kani peoples of Kerala in India, who receive funds from an Indian pharmaceutical (ayurvedic) company which seeks to commercialize the anti-stress drug known in India as Jeevani. The main ingredient of Jeevani is the arogyappacha plant, which grows wild on the Agasthyar Hills of Kerala. Jeevani is a combination of four herbs, which was developed over a period of years by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), and following successful drug trials has been firmly established to strengthen and speed up the recovery time physically and mentally being an adaptogen that possesses anti-stress, and an anti-fatigue qualities – a much needed aid in these turbulent times.

In Peru like elsewhere the oppressive attitude of modern medical practitioners ensues preventing needed medical benefits from the indigenous source from reaching those in need. In the case of vertical birthing (which though was available in the U.K., I personally had to fight for up until giving birth). Vertical birthing involves squatting or kneeling, which allows for the birthing process to take place in alignment with gravity, and not against it. Considered outdated by modern medical practitioners, vertical birthing provides a greater rate of survival for the newborn in indigenous communities (cut infant mortality by half from 2004 – 2009), and no back pain for the birthing mother. Six health ministries (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) have formed the Intercultural Andean Health Plan in Latin America as a result of a treaty known as the Andean Health Organization-Hipólito Unanue Convention aimed at promoting and targeting indigenous health care on aspects that include vertical birthing (which includes allowing the father to be present), and cultural illnesses such as “susto”, a Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome where a person’s soul thought to be lost can be recovered using certain rituals.

Nature vs. Industry

Traditional medicine in general looks at the person from a whole perspective which has been developed over thousands of years, modern/allopathic medicine has been developed over a period of 400+ years, and is still struggling with its perspective the human being from a mechanical symptomatic perspective, and in doing so has led to new diseases that are drug related. The antagonistic attitude towards traditional/natural medicine is a false one rooted in the insecurities of modern medical practitioners and the pharmaceutical industry ignoring that nature or biodiversity has been the source of all medicines including modern medicine. Modern drugs were initially 90% plant based. In the U.S. alone, between 1959 – 1973 25% all prescriptive drugs contained one or more ingredient which was plant-based. Analysis of the top 150 drugs used in the U.S. in 1993 found that 57% of those drugs had bases that derived from biodiversity. In 1997, 11 of the best-selling drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies were derived from natural products, which reaped US$ 17.5 billion. The drug Taxol alone reaped US$ 2.3 billion in 2000. Taxol was derived from the plant Taxus baccata , a conifer more commonly known as the Yew Tree, native to central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia.

On the therapeutic scale, the global spa industry benefited to the tune of US$255 billion in 2007, when the source of that is indigenous to India and China. Doing so well, should not the companies show their appreciation in the form of giving back to the communities from which they draw from, so that those communities can benefit, and continue to provide the world its natural wealth? Surely this is a win-win situation.

Home to over 400 traditional cultures, the indigenous of Latin America have struggled long for recognition of their identity amidst the dominant cultures. Rich in a biodiversity that has contributed much to the well-being of others globally, they argue for a collective recognition of their natural wealth and its knowledge base which can be of mutual benefit to the communities concerned, researchers, and those who profit.

Director of the Indian Institute of Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine, Bhushan Patwardhan calls for scientists to be ethically and legally binding in gaining consent from the “custodians of traditional knowledge which regulates the commercial usage of plant derived drugs in their application. Patwardhan gives the example of the Indian long pepper which has been employed in Ayurvedic medicine for 100s of years. From the Indian long pepper, the active ingredient piperine has been extracted in order to reduce the dosage and thus the negative impact of the drug rifampicin in the treatment of tuberculosis. The contraindications applied in Ayurvedic medicine are remiss in the modern treatment of tuberculosis whereby the treatment is much longer than the Ayurvedic ruling that the plant should not be used for 40 consecutive days. One can then imagine the scenario of FDA warning that eventually bans the use of the plant thus leading to further defamation of traditional/natural/indigenous knowledge base! This would definitely contribute greatly towards a sustainable infrastructure medicinally speaking, which in reality would be challenged, and undermined greatly by the Western pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.

Meanwhile, those who see the harmony of what can be achieved wait for no legislation. Complementray medicine is slowing gaining ground. Chinese hospitals that provide herbal therapy alongside conventional medicine to Ecuadorian clinics where modern general practitioners work alongside traditional ‘yachaks’ (shamans), and the National Health Service in the U.K., has been slowing integrating alternative practices such as homeopathy, acupuncture, yoga, and osteopathy into the mainstream practice of health care in Britain.


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