Annual purchases of natural
products and supplements on the international market are over
US $60 billion
Until recently many health
practitioners, particularly those in the nations of the north, had
cast a wary and skeptical eye upon the traditional systems of
medicine labeling them unscientific, unreliable and perhaps even
dangerous. However, in the past two decades there has been a global
resurgence of interest in traditional medicine both in developed and
developing countries. In Canada, statistics show that more than half
of the population currently uses natural health products, including
herbal remedies. Annual purchases of natural products and
supplements in Canada have exceeded $4.5 billion, in the United
States $27 billion and the international market is over US $60
billion and growing at a rate of 7% per annum. Many of these natural
products are derived from medicinal organisms and rely upon the
traditional knowledge that has been passed down from generation to
generation for millennia.
This recent trend should not be
confused, however, with another long-held tradition. The World
Health organization (WHO) reveals that over 80% of the human
population depends upon traditional medicine for their primary
health care. Many of these people are the rural and urban poor and
"modern medicine", if at all available, is generally unaffordable
for the poor.
Therefore, the conservation of
these natural resources is not only an environmental issue, but also
has economic and rural development implications. Coupled with this
renewed interest in traditional medical knowledge comes enormous
pressure on the very survival of the medicinal organisms. Habitat
degradation, over-harvesting, climate change, political and social
unrest, as well as economic factors are all major threats to the
survival of our healing resources.
Over 80% of the human
population depends on traditional medicine for their primary
Every human society has its own
peculiar culture that is integrally linked to the surrounding
biodiversity and environment that serves as its home. As the
physical habitat changes along with the availability of the local
resources, changes in the culture take place as well. Thus culture
and biodiversity are tightly interwoven like the warp and weft of a
unique ethnic fabric with its own colors, art and design.
Biodiversity, often thought of solely in biological terms, has
substantial cultural elements.
The great cultural diversity of
India, China, and Indonesia, for example, is built upon the cultural
adaptations to the unique ecosystems that characterize those vast
countries. Biological diversity relies upon the habitats that harbor
its species and in a similar way, cultural diversity depends upon
the languages and dialects that provide a vehicle to pass down the
traditional knowledge from generation to generation. It is estimated
that over one half of the world's 6,800 languages are currently in
danger of extinction as technology leads our world towards greater
homogeneity. This loss of cultural diversity directly endangers
biodiversity by reducing the variety of approaches to the
co-existence of plant, animal and human life. Therefore the goal of
biodiversity conservation must be integrated with the preservation
of cultural diversity.
Science Meets Tradition
Studies on the Ginkgo biloba
tree indicate a basis for its traditional use in the treatment
of memory loss
Traditional healers are often
considered to have a broader knowledge of medicinal diversity
than modern scientists. Whether this is true or not, the relation
between these two intellectual systems merits exploration. Often
traditional medicine can provide important guidance for
pharmacological studies. For example, plants used for the treatment
of Malaria by healers in Borneo have proven to be significantly more
active in anti-plasmodial laboratory screens than control plants.
Also, recent studies at the University of California, Los Angeles'
(UCLA) Neuropsychiatric Institute on Ginkgo biloba indicate that the
traditional use of the healing properties of this ancient tree for
the treatment of memory loss has a pharmacological basis.
Research at McGill University in Canada by Dr. Valerie Assinewe on
the immuno-stimulating properties of Panax quinquefolius
L.(American Ginseng), widely used by First Nations healers as a
tonic and blood fortifier, has defined more precisely the
pharmacological activity and the important active components of this
Another example of work on the
convergence of tradition and science is the TRAMIL Program, which
conducts scientific research on medicinal plants in the Caribbean
basin. This program has focused on conserving traditional community
knowledge of folk remedies and providing scientific validation of
their safety and efficacy to encourage national health policies that
include traditional medicine in primary health care programs.
Further north, Health Canada has taken a leading role in this regard
by establishing a Natural Health Product Directorate that will
regulate this burgeoning industry starting in January 2004. This
directorate was born out of the nagging question of quality control
and efficacy. Unlike modern medicine, many natural medicines when
not subjected to strict regulatory control can contain wide
variations in the quality and effectiveness of the finished product.
Key steps in quality control should begin with good harvesting and
agricultural practices, and include processing, packaging and
labeling to ensure efficacious, high-quality end products and the
safety of consumers.
The subject of access to, use
of and protection of traditional medicinal knowledge has created a
broad debate in many countries and in many international
organizations. This is a topic beyond the scope of this article, but
suffice it to say that there are a number of key issues for
indigenous and local communities to preserve and protect traditional
knowledge as well as important socio-economic, legal, environmental,
and indigenous issues relevant for policy-makers. There are changes
required in existing Intellectual Property regimes and a need for
the development of new legislative models to protect traditional
knowledge. These changes must include the relationship between
research ethics (peculiar to individual research institutions) and
intellectual property ownership policies.
Many traditional healers are
hesitant to share their knowledge due to reports of bio-piracy and
out-right intellectual property theft. Positive examples must be
set, using a cooperative approach that provides appropriate
compensation to the knowledge holders and the communities that rely
upon the medicinal resources. An example of such a cooperative
venture might include cultural heritage documentation and the
evaluation of traditional foods and medicines with the results
distributed freely back to the participating communities along with
adequate financial compensation and employment opportunities.
Many traditional healers are
hesitant to share their knowledge due to reports of bio-piracy
and out-right intellectual property theft
Biodiversity and health are
vitally inter-related and the conservation of healing resources is a
complex issue that extends well beyond the in-situ or ex-situ
conservation of medicinal plants. The communities that rely upon and
utilize these resources must be included in the conservation
programs and their traditional knowledge requires both respect and
protection. Indeed this is a unique opportunity to link three key
poverty-related indicators: environment, rural development and
The healing resources that our
planet provides include the traditional knowledge systems that have
evolved out of medicinal organisms and they need to be cherished.
Our sustainable existence on earth depends upon it!
 (UCLA News website Nov.
10th 2003: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/)
information and inspiration for this article evolved out of
4-day symposium hosted in Ottawa, Canada in late October, 2003 by
Tropical Conservancy entitled
"Biodiversity and Health: Using and Sustaining Medicinal Resources.
The proceedings will be published by the National Research
Council of Canada and include a set of policy recommendations to the
National and International legislative bodies for the preservation
of medicinal resources and traditional knowledge.
Aitken is the International Coordinator of
Tropical Conservancy and the Managing Editor of Biodiversity,
Journal of Life on Earth.