Laboratory synthesis of new medicines is increasingly costly and not as fruitful as companies would like. In the words of one major drug company executive, "Scientists may be able to make any molecule they can imagine on a computer, but Mother Nature . . . is an infinitely more ingenious and exciting chemist." Scientists have developed new technologies to assess the chemical makeup of plants, and they realize that using medicinal plants identified by Indians makes research more efficient and less expensive. With these new trends, drug development has actually returned to its roots: traditional medicine. It is now understood by bioprospectors that the tribal peoples of the rainforest represent the key to finding new and useful tropical forest plants. The degree to which these indigenous people understand and are able to use this diversity sustainably is astounding. A single Amazonian tribe of Indians may use more than 200 species of plants for medicinal purposes alone.
Of the 121 pharmaceutical drugs that are plant-derived today, 74 percent were discovered through follow-up research to verify the authenticity of information concerning the medical uses of the plant by indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, to this day, very few rainforest tribes have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis. Robert Goodland of the World Bank wrote, "Indigenous knowledge is essential for the use, identification and cataloguing of the [tropical] biota. As tribal groups disappear, their knowledge vanishes with them. The preservation of these groups is a significant economic opportunity for the [developing] nation, not a luxury."
Since Amazonian Indians are often the only ones who know both the properties of these plants and how they can best be used, their knowledge is now considered an essential component of all efforts to conserve and develop the rainforest. Since failure to document this lore would represent a tremendous economic and scientific loss to the industrialized world, the bioprospectors are now working side by side with the rainforest tribal shamans and herbal healers to learn the wealth of their plant knowledge. But bioprospecting has a dark side. Indian knowledge that has resisted the pressure of "modernization" is being used by bioprospectors who, like oil companies and loggers destroying the forests, threaten to leave no benefits behind them.
But Few Benefits for the Indigenous People
It's a noble idea-the ethnobotanist working with the Indians seeking a cure for cancer or even AIDS, like Sean Connery in the movie Medicine Man. Yet behind this lurks a system that, at its worst, steals the Indian knowledge to benefit CEOs, stockholders, and academic careers and reputations. The real goal of these powerful bioprospectors is to target novel and active phytochemicals for medical applications, synthesize them in a laboratory, and have them patented for subsequent drug manufacture and resulting profits. In this process, many active and beneficial plants have been found in the shaman's medicine chest, only to be discarded when it was found that the active ingredients of the plant numbered too many to be cost effectively synthesized into a patentable drug. It doesn't matter how active or beneficial the plant is or how long the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process might take to approve the new drug; if the bioprospector can't capitalize on it, the public will rarely hear about a plant's newly discovered benefits. The fact is there is a lot of money at stake. In an article published in Economic Botany, Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, an economist at YaleUniversity, and Dr. Michael J. Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, estimate the minimum number of pharmaceutical drugs potentially remaining to be extracted from the rainforests. It is staggering! They estimate that there are at least 328 new drugs that still await discovery in the rainforest, with a potential value of $3 billion to $4 billion to a private pharmaceutical company and as much as $147 billion to society as a whole.
While the indigenous Indian shamans go about their daily lives caring for the well-being of their tribe, the shaman's rainforest medicines are being tested, synthesized, patented, and submitted for FDA approval in U.S. laboratories thousands of miles away. Soon children with viral infections, adults with herpes, cancer patients, and many others may benefit from new medicines from the Amazon rainforest. But what will the indigenous tribes see of these wonderful new medicines? As corporations rush to patent indigenous medicinal knowledge, the originating indigenous communities receive few, if any, benefits.