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close this bookMedicinal plants: Rescuing a global heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)
close this folder1. The global background
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentEconomic issues
View the documentPolicy issues
View the documentRegulatory issues
View the documentSocial issues
View the documentConservation Issues
View the documentAgricultural issues
View the documentForestry issues
View the documentVeterinary issues
View the documentThe international research base

Social issues

Sociocultural factors play an important role in the preservation of medicinal plants and the people's continued reliance on traditional medicine. Often, villagers will use a modem medicine to relieve their immediate symptoms, while turning to traditional medicine for treating the root cause of the illness. Revival of traditional health systems following decolonization, as well as increased self-determination of indigenous groups, has led an increasing number of developing country governments to re-evaluate and promote their traditional medicine systems. Such systems are a response to the conditions and needs of local populations. To have any chance of success, however, new public health systems must necessarily incorporate the cultural habits handed down through generations.

Traditional Knowledge. Most developing country societies view traditional medicine practices as an integral part of social culture. During colonial times, however, traditional healthcare systems gradually lost patronage and favor especially with the urban populationsdue notably to the imposition of Western culture and to the support given to Western (allopathic) medicine. Since the demise of colonialism, there has been a gradual reestablishment of the traditional systems of teaching and dispensary in indigenous medicine. It is in light of this resurgence, both locally and internationally, that pressure is being placed on an important component of that healthcare--the plants.

In some cases, however, traditional practitioners have resisted attempts to document their knowledge. They see such disclosures as being detrimental to their practice. In addition, they treat with skepticism the outsiders' interest in their plants and therapies, rightly believing they will receive no credit or royalties for any future drug discoveries derived from their knowledge.

Yet exchanging experiences and scientific data on various aspects of traditional medicine prevalent in different parts of the world is an important step in helping save the plants and the knowledge of their use. And there are also greater advantages to be reaped. In many parts of the world, for instance, there are no doctors and no Western drugs. Even where doctors are available, import restrictions and government budgeting often mean there are insufficient medicines to distribute. Sometimes, preparations are used even though they have passed their expiration date.

In such circumstances, it would probably be better to use herbal medicines-all of course chosen with care, supplied with a maximum of quality assurance, and prescribed by practitioners the patients trust.

Taken all round, the availability of locally-grown drugs, their relatively low cost, and the minimal side-effects associated with many of the drugs are important factors in providing primary healthcare. For persons who have never experienced sickness or illness without medicines, these are important considerations.

Women's Role. In many of the developing countries women serve as conservators and cultivators of medicinal plants. Through their household practices they use traditional approaches in caring for the health needs of the family. In Africa and Latin America, women constitute the majority of traditional medical practitioners, as well as the primary gatherers of medicinal plants. Women are the traditional birth attendants, delivering and tending the mother's pre- and post-natal needs.

Although often unappreciated, most mothers are the de facto healers of the family tending to accidents and ailments with medicinal-plant remedies cultivated in their home gardens, maintaining the family diet, administering medicines, providing counseling and essential emotional support. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that virtually every leader of a developing country benefited at some time in his/her formative years from the medicinal-plant knowledge of a mother or grandmother.

Enhancing Social Capital. The importance of traditional medicinal-plant knowledge or social capital is evident by the need for "bioprospectors" (Western specialists seeking new and profitable drugs from nature) to recruit indigenous peoples to identify local flora and describe their uses and healing properties. The need to protect intellectual property rights (IPR) has now become a major issue both for developing countries whose genetic resources are being exploited, and for developed countries whose patent law cannot always be enforced in developing countries.

Legal restrictions over access to, and removal of, medicinal-plant germplasm. are easier to enforce than legal protection over the use of the information represented by that genetic material (intellectual property rights). In the past, many countries have failed to adequately enforce such property rights, partly because of a lack of awareness of the potential value contained within their genetic resources. The recognition of IPRs, however, may provide a very important incentive to many countries to institute environmental policies preserving biodiversity. 9 A careful balance needs to be achieved between restricting access to plants, which may enable economic returns to be achieved, and restricting access to information which may have opportunity costs.

Generating Income. Medicinal plants are both a source of income and a source of affordable healthcare. As described above, many poor people derive their only income from harvesting medicinal plants. This income however, is probably declining in those countries where natural habitats are disappearing. A strategy that integrates conservation and cultivation of medicinal plants could create long-term employment and income opportimities. Agricultural R&D, and production will require qualified professional and technical workers, and labors, many of the latter can be recruited locally. Expanded local pharmaceutical industries would also require additional workers at all levels.