By Hwaa Irfan
It is not often when one chooses to live a certain way, a way that is other than the established globalized status quo that one is left alone to live in peace. It’s all possible only if it is within the confines of what the ruling power has allowed, but if that life choice that harms no one, including one’s self happens to be in the way of the established lifestyles, then one is meted out with an injustice that defies honor.
So it is for the much abused Yanomami, an indigenous Amazonian tribe who have lived in the Amazon basin for 25,000 years. Many British people under the age of 38 can identify with the idea of a drop of blood being taken to store DNA information on a database without consent. For the Yanomami it was the oft repeated habit of the West when coming across an unknown people of using deceit by giving items desired by the people in exchange for something desired by the West. In the case of the Yanomami, what was wanted of them was their blood, and for anybody aware of the nature of the body on a holistic level, blood represents the life force. Taking blood from the Yanomami as children thus unable to say “Aye or nay” was done by American anthropologists in the 1960s, much can be taken for granted when coming into contact with a people who have their own set of beliefs. Like the aborigines of Australia, the blood ties of one relate to all others whether living or dead, and for the Yanomami that blood theft represented a violation of all for that blood has to be returned to them and destroyed in a ceremonial manner to allow for an eternal rest for their ancestors, otherwise they remain attached to this earth plane causing harm to the living. Living miles away from the countries that stole form them (Canada and the U.S.) they are unable to address the balance.
Then also in the 1960s, many Yanomami died as a result of the work of American anthropologists who essential spread the measles, dangerous to secluded communities which have no immunity against this form of disease, and breaking Venezuelan law by establishing a foundation to form a private reservation which would be controlled by Napoleon Chagnon and two Venezuelans.
Now there is another way of losing/hiding the origin of an item, and that is by changing its name, and claiming rights over it without the indigenous people benefiting i.e. the theft of genetic resources. The Israelis do this by changing place names of Palestinian areas and streets in order to Judaize it. For the Yanomami, the theft concerned is the Pacific Yew Tree, also known as the English Yew, Western Yew, Japanese Yew or the Anglo-Japanese Yew. Of the Taxaceae family of the plant kingdom, the specie referred to is the Taxus brevolia. Taxus brevolia is actually quite common in regions with a temperate climate in the northern hemisphere, but what is special about the Taxus brevolia of the Amazon is that it produces a particular bioactive ingredient. This bioactive constituent since its discovery has helped many cancer patients around the world whilst threatening its sustainability and ignoring the indigenous people as if they were not there.
Unconsulted in terms of rights, from the Yanomami in the extreme south of Venezuela, researchers of the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich after signing an agreement with the Venezuelan government in 1998, carried out fieldwork studying and collecting medicinal plants used by the Yanomami, and then learnt from the willing Yanomami how to manage the natural resources pertaining to these medicinal plants.
Unconsulted in terms of rights, from the Yanomami in the extreme south of Venezuela, researchers of the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich after signing an agreement with the Venezuelan government in 1998, carried out fieldwork studying and collecting medicinal plants used by the Yanomami, and then learnt from the willing Yanomami how to manage the natural resources pertaining to these medicinal plants. The bioactive anticancer constituent stumbled upon is commercially known as Taxol from the raw compound baccatin, which has become valuable to many cancer patients around the world as Paclitaxel.
Taxol was developed by the U.S. National Cancer Institute research program and has become one of the top selling drugs. Patented by the New York based Bristol Myers Squibb, Paclitaxel is a drug used in chemotherapy to treat breast, ovarian, lung, head, neck, and bladder cancer, as well as AIDS related Kaposi’s sarcoma. It is also used to treat psoriasis, congenital polycystic kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. In 1998 Paclitaxel sold to a tune of US$1.2bn. Bristol Myers Squibb had earned 1.6bn dollars in 2000, with one million people treated with Paclitaxel by 2003.
Unsustainable on All Levels
Paclitaxel is derived from the bark of what is in fact a slow growing tree, and the raw compound baccatin is only found in small quantities i.e. 1 gram to 14 kilos of bark! In other words it takes 3 trees to treat one patient.
Indigenous use of the Pacific Yew includes:
- An underarm hair remover for women – The Saanich people
- Red paint – The Okanagans
- Canoe paddles – The Klallam, Kwakiutl, Makah, Nootka and the Quinault
- Fish hooks, spoons, dishes, trinket boxes – The Makah
- Spoons, needles, poles, awls, dishes, pegs, drum frames, boxes – The Quinault
- Combs – The Cowlitz and Quinault
- Medicinal to impart strength – The Swinomish
- The leaves are used medicinally for babies and the elders – The Chehalis
- The leaves are used medicinally as an infusion for internal injuries/pain – The Klallam
- The liquid of the bark is used for the lungs – The Cowlitz
The Yanomami healing system is very different from that of modern allopathic western medicine. When one of their people becomes ill, spiritual practices are employed with what is in fact a poisonous plant and they work with the energies of the plant (as in homeopathy and other energy-based/vibrational healing mechanisms employing certain established and proven procedures. The patient’s life force works with the life force of the plant and animals used, whereas in allopathic western medicine, the concern is only for the symptoms by imposition.
By extracting a bioactive ingredient out of the context of other cofactors within the plant as always there is bound to be some side effects. The Pacific Yew is quite poisonous. As Taxol, it can lower the blood cells, which is contradictory to the healing process. As a result, one is more likely to bleed or become ill from those who are ill, as one’s immunity is weakened, and the negative effect is strengthened if taking Paclitaxel as well. It can also harm an unborn child. Other side effects include:
- Hair loss
- Mild joint/ muscle pain
- Tingling/ burning of ]arms, hands, legs, or feet
- Redness and/or sores on the mouth or lips
- Unusual weakness or tiredness
Serious side effects include:
- Severe allergic reactions: rash; hives; itching; difficulty swallowing or breathing; tightness in the chest; flushing; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat; hoarseness)
- Severe pain
- Open sores on skin or at the injection site
- Change in the amount of urine produced
- Chest pain
- Eye swelling or irritation
- Irregular heartbeat
- Hearing trouble/ loss of hearing
- Ringing in the ears
- Severe joint/ muscle pain
- Severe nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Severe numbness, tingling, or burning on the arms, hands, legs, or feet
- Severe stomach pain
- Sudden or severe dizziness, lightheadedness, or headache
- Swelling of the arms, hands, legs, or feet
- Unusual bruising/ bleeding
- Vision impairment
It is also toxic to horses, cats and dogs.
Aware that the Pacific Yew has become an endangered specie due to commercial demand, attempts have been made to find alternative source of the raw compound baccatin used to make Taxol. Gary Strobel a plant biologist of Montana State University found Taxol in plants in Australia, and Nepal, and found it present in fungi found in Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela. Synthetic forms of production have been explored, but so far there has been no results, and even if there is, the problems of treating an organic body with synthetic means does not make scientific logic.
A Symbiotic Relationship
Increasingly certain countries look to developing a reciprocal relationship with the communities that are affected by a commercial demand for their natural resources. To ensure such a relationship, the Japanese have the Nagoya Protocol which aims to share the benefits to pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies with the communities concerned. Given that the modern medical profession still treats cancer without fully understanding it, and is narrow minded when it comes to alternative methods of healing that works with the body, mind and spirit instead of seeing only the body as a vehicle to be repaired, there is no need to deny communities of their natural resources, their sustainable life style, by providing short term solutions that are far from unsustainable.
Marquez, H. “Biopiracy Leaves Native Groups Out in the Cold.”
“Taxus Brevolia.” http://www.conifers.org/ta/Taxus_brevifolia.php