On The Value Of Biodiversity
The Shaman And The Madagascar PeriwinklePosted on: September 30th, 2020
Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #25
In a rainforest on the island of Madagascar, southeast of the African continent grows a little plant with dark green leaves and pink flowers called the rose, pink, or Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus, family Apocynaceae). Delighted with its fragile beauty, European explorers of the last century transplanted it to many parts of America during their voyaging. However, this little plant has an attractiveness beyond its beauty, as the natives of Madagascar and other indigenous communities of Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean have discovered. As knowledge of this plant’s therapeutic properties spread in the civilized world, shamans (healers or indigenous doctors) were already familiar with it. They used it to treat eye inflammations, sore throats, wasp bites, fevers, and bleeding. It wasn’t until 1957, thanks to the use of this plant by Indigenous Jamaicans to treat diabetes, that Western scientists were interested in giving the Madagascar periwinkle a closer look.
A research team from Canada and one from the United States independently extracted several alkaloid compounds from the rose periwinkle. These alkaloids proved to have a massive effect on treating certain cancers that were considered incurable at that time. After much research and testing, more than 70 different alkaloids were isolated from this species, of which at least six have anticancer properties. Two of these compounds, Vinblastine and Vincristine, have saved millions of people suffering from various forms of advanced cancers, including children affected by advanced leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, neuroblastoma, melanoma, and lung, bladder, brain, and testicular cancer, among others. Pharmaceutical companies raise more than $200 million annually from selling these two drugs ($22 million in 2020 in the US alone). What percentage of these enormous profits do you think is returned to Madagascar, the country where the periwinkle originated, and one of the world’s poorest countries? The answer is NONE AT ALL. Not a penny. And this is not an isolated case.
Quinine, an alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona or quinine tree (Cinchona ledgeriana), is one of the most bitter substances known. The Native Americans have known about this plant for thousands of years, and it was part of their medical inventory. Its discovery by non-native people brought the cure for malaria, a disease caused by a mosquito-borne parasite that destroys red blood cells. Malaria is still responsible for more deaths than any other disease in the world. If it weren’t for the quinine we inherited from our indigenous ancestors, malaria would be even more dangerous and deadly. Although there are now several synthetic versions of quinine, malaria resistance to these synthetics appears from time to time, forcing doctors to prescribe compounds containing the natural compound. As with the periwinkle, neither the indigenous settlers of South America nor the countries where the plant was first collected receive anything in return for owning and maintaining the original forests and habitats that gave rise to this plant. Unfortunately, these stories are not unique and happen all over the world. And they happen not only with plants that have medicinal value but with many others that make our lives more pleasant and productive.
There are two main points I want to make with these observations. First, no matter how advanced science is, no matter how many millions of dollars are invested in research into new chemical compounds, nature has been working for millions of years on producing chemical combinations of the most incredible and varied characteristics. Tropical forests have been one of the largest chemical laboratories in the history of the planet. The indigenous people who have inhabited them for thousands of years have been their caretakers, and have studied and accumulated this critical information. This intimate knowledge of plant and animal species and their various values as medicine, food, tool-building raw material, and other useful things rests largely with shamans, those wise indigenous healers.
The second point is that industrialized countries have depended and still rely heavily on the riches provided by tropical forests. There has been no equity between the information and products obtained from the rainforests by these countries, and the benefits that the originating local communities should receive. Moreover, the pressures placed on developing countries by developed nations have forced them to borrow enormous sums. Developing countries now depend for their survival on the irrational exploitation of their natural resources at any cost, including at the expense of losing their invaluable, precious biodiversity.
Dr. Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist (a person who studies the plants used by the Indigenous people), said, “Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a huge library is consumed by flames.” Shamans possess the information that has allowed the industrialized world to have aspirin, coffee, quinine, curare, and many other compounds and medicines. The accelerated conversion of tropical forests and their inhabitants destroys species that promise cures for AIDS, cancer, and diseases still unknown to civilization, and destroys the repositories of this information: the shamans. This is, essentially, a double crime. AIDS, for example, appeared as a disease less than 20 years ago, and this year COVID-19 created its global pandemic of dramatic proportion.
This situation is like someone saying to you, “I have everything you need in my house to live a healthier, richer life, and I want to share with you how to take advantage of everything.” And in response, you steal the doorknob, set fire to the rest of the house with everything inside, and leave the person wounded to starve to death in the street.
Here is another way to look at it. Imagine a vast library filled with millions of single copies of original manuscripts. This amazing library is not organized in any way, we don’t have a catalog of the manuscripts in it, no one has read them or given them titles. This library contains all the knowledge we could dream of, gathered over millions of years of research and experimentation, with answers to questions about how to cure diseases, new types of foods, medicines, materials, poetry, and music, and an incomprehensible level of inspiration and beauty. Every day, someone goes into this library, picks up a whole shelf of unread, original, unique manuscripts, and grinds them up to make toilet paper and throw-away shopping bags. We’re doing this every single day in forests across the planet.
But it’s not all darkness in the future. Some people are doing something about it. For example, the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) in Costa Rica made history after signing several agreements with large pharmaceutical companies for the systematic analysis and catalog of samples of plants collected in the country’s protected forests. In exchange for samples and maintaining the catalog, companies paid cash for the right to examine samples. Eventually, if a company manages to find or produce a useful chemical compound, they would pay a percentage of the profits to the country, which would then use these funds to protect and manage the ecosystems where the plants came from. This strategy could extend to shamans and healers, who are the repositories of this useful information. The work of cultivating the relationship with shamans is usually the work of ethnobotanists like Dr. Plotkin. Unfortunately, many countries have already lost most of this human wealth. We have almost no shamans left to learn from Still, the Shaman Apprentices program, which Plotkin created, is trying to rescue the invaluable information in these “living libraries,” translating it into the tribes’ language, and encouraging indigenous youth to work within their communities on this vital task. Shamans remain irreplaceable symbols of cultures that could die or be mortally wounded without them.
If these arguments for preserving tropical forests and their indigenous inhabitants do not suffice, I would like to give you one last reason. If the rose periwinkle had not been discovered in the forests of Madagascar and had become extinct (as most of its close relatives are about to), many of us would no longer exist, victims of one of the deadly cancers that this little plant has helped cure. Put yourself in the place of a person affected by incurable cancer. Isn’t this reason enough for us to preserve tropical forests around the world? For me, it was. A few years ago, the little rose periwinkle saved my life.
Carlos L. de la Rosa