“The goal is not only to identify plants but to guard and honor this traditional wisdom in order to keep bio-cultural diversity intact,” said Michael Balick, the vice president for botanical science and director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. The hope, he said, is to help underserved peoples deal with globalization and the loss of their cultures.
In a presentation at the conference, Dr. Balick discussed his work helping the islands of Palau, Pohnpei and Kosrae identify and preserve their ethnobotanical heritage in the face of Western cultural intrusions.
Scholars coined the term ethnobotany about a century ago for the study of the many ways that indigenous peoples make use of plants. Today that field studies and analyzes traditional medical practices based on natural substances that were the basis for the development of novel pharmaceuticals.
In many cases, it took hundreds of years of trial and error for cultures around the world to identify what local species could treat a stomach ache or defuse an infection. In some cases – in China’s ancient pharmacopeias, for example, or Europe’s 16th-century texts on medicinal herbs — that knowledge was preserved in writing for future generations. In other cases, however, the traditions were never codified, but rather passed down orally.
In many communities today, that traditional knowledge threatens to be snuffed out in a generation or two. In many cases, “young people would rather watch television, get on the Internet or migrate to more Western locations,” Dr. Balick said. “So a lot of the elders are concerned about loss of information.”
In Micronesia, for example, no one he interviewed over a 10-year period could recall how to make clothing from fibers from local breadfruit trees, a tradition that used to be common amongst the islanders.
Local knowledge can also help save lives. When a cholera epidemic hit Pohnpei, the local medical dispensary quickly ran out of pharmaceuticals to treat patients’ severe diarrhea. The pharmacist’s great-grandmother then offered a remedy that involved what seemed like common weeds growing around the clinic. Her homegrown treatment helped alleviate some of the epidemics’ symptoms and also inspired the idea of creating local health-care manuals.
Dr. Balick helped enlist around 60 experts — including traditional healers, physicians, botanists, toxicologists, linguists and social scientists, many of them native to the islands — to assemble the manuals. His team began by interviewing elders about which resources, both above ground and in the reefs and waters surrounding the islands, they relied on for medicinal benefits. “People were invited to share information that they would like not to be gone when they pass,” he said.
They compiled island-specific manuals for Palau and Pohnpei that addressed primary health care for ills like bites, stings, colds, flus and infectious diseases. In some cases, including “mangrove sickness,” which is characterized by achy muscles, stomach ache, dizziness and fatigue, people identified nine separate plants as useful treatments. Those who shared their knowledge are fully credited in the books.
Dr. Balick said he hoped \the manuals would help the islanders become self-sustaining and self-reliant, as they were in the past, in treating ailments that deplete life and financial resources in the communities. In conducting surveys, he found that the more traditional knowledge people have, the more they report being healthy and happy as they age. The manuals are not meant to replace allopathic medicine but rather complement and support it.
He points out that nearly three billion people on the planet have limited access to Western medicine and thus depend on some level on traditional medicines derived from plants. “My goal is to try to help people help themselves in a way that is sustainable and respectful to the environment,” he said.
Sustainability initiatives often originate within the communities and nations themselves. The Micronesia Challenge, for example, was organized by Micronesian nations with the goal of conserving 30 percent of their marine resources and 20 percent of their terrestrial resources by 2020 so they can preserve local flora and fauna for future generations’ use.
Dr. Balick’s colleagues help support the initiative by identifying and inventorying endemic flora, fungi and biodiversity hot spots on the islands. From there, they work with locals on designing protected areas to preserve rare species.
“What we find is more successful is not that outsiders designate and exclude people, but that local communities are directly involved in conservation and sustainable management of their resources,” he said. “We’re in a race against time to hopefully identify where those rare species are so we can help local people and organizations get them into protected regions.”
Nuwer, Rachel. 2012. "Ancestral Remedies to the Rescue". New York Times Blogs. Posted: August 1, 2012. Available online: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/01/ancestral-remedies-to-the-rescue/