It is said that when the wife of the Spanish viceroy of Peru fell ill with malaria in the 1600s, an Indian healer treated her with the bark of the cinchona tree. Whether this tale is true or not, the drug was then taken up by Europeans, who called it 'quinine', and it has been used to treat the disease ever since.
Indigenous groups, who have an intimate knowledge of their surrounding ecosystems, rely on nature for many aspects of their daily survival, including medicines. Western doctors owe these groups a much greater debt than they usually acknowledge.
Amazonian peoples in Brazil and Peru, for example, have long used the roots of the Chondrodendron vine for treating fevers and snakebites, and as a weapon. Hunters use arrows dipped in a liquid extracted from the roots. Once wounded, their prey falls to the ground and dies within seconds. Western scientists have adapted the drug, called curare, to make modern anaesthetics, and to treat multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.
On the other side of the world, a substance called rauwulfia - made from the snakeroot plant that grows in the forests of India - has been used for thousands of years to treat mental and nervous illnesses. Western scientists adopted this indigenous cure in the 1940s.
Harvesting for health
Around 25 per cent of the pharmaceutical drugs used in the West today come from plants, and many more are being developed as medicines of the future. For example, scientists believe that poison from the Epipedobates tricolor frog,
The wealth of biodiversity in our planet's wilder places may well provide modern medicine with many of the cures of the future, as well as continuing to serve those who live among it and know it best.
|Illustration: Jana Vodickova|
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