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Biodiversity and Health: Conserving our Healing Resources **

By Stephen Aitken


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.

Cultural Diversity

Over 80% of the human population depends on traditional medicine for their primary health care

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.[1] 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 root plant.

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.

Intellectual Property Rights

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 health.

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!


[1] (UCLA News website Nov. 10th 2003: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/)

** The information and inspiration for this article evolved out of a 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.

* Stephen Aitken is the International Coordinator of Tropical Conservancy and the Managing Editor of Biodiversity, Journal of Life on Earth.


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