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The rediscovery of the value of medicinal plants for human health: A return to nature


PH Oeste Centro, Libertador
Ave. Libertador Caracas, Venezuela


The paper begins with a quotation, which states that 200 years ago, anyone who wished to be a physician had to study botany. This was in recognition of the fact that most medical prescriptions of the time were derived from plants. The paper elaborates that, even to- day, over 700 medicinal compounds in modern western Pharmacopeia, are derived from plants, and that the current world trade of medicinal plants is of the order of billions of U.S. dollars. The paper also highlights that man's interest in medicinal plants has sky-rocketed in recent years, due to a number of factors. The factors discussed include: a new world-wide trend for man to revert to natural herbal remedies, especially those from the tropics, which are safer with respect to human health, since they grow in relatively unpolluted environments, and which are also less expensive, especially when compared with the synthetic chemical products marketed by the industrialised countries of the Western world; and a world-wide awareness that the unchecked destruction of the vegetation (and especially the tropical rainforests) found in the Third World countries, may be leading to the irreparable extinction of many valuable medicinal plants species. There is thus a renewed global interest on the conservation of the valuable medicinal plant resources. The author urges the Third World countries to guard against excessive exploitation of their medicinal plant wealth for the private profit of the drug companies of the North.


"Two hundred years ago, anyone wishing to be a physician had to study botany, because most medical prescriptions were made from plants" (Well 1989).

"In drugs, it is not necessary to be expensive. Something makes a good drug if it can relieve illness as soon as it is swallowed, and if it can be found readily in hills and forests, secluded valleys and wilderness" (Suemin, 1758).

"The student and the teacher must always remember that what is new is not necessarily true and what is true is not necessarily new" (Lewis and Elwin-Lewis, 1977).

The growing world interest in medicinal plants

Interest in medicinal plants has sky-rocketed in recent years due to a number of factors. among them we find:

(a) A world-wide deep-seated trend in health-care, from the expensive, denaturalized, side-effects prone, chemical drugs-based model, towards a more economical, natural, safer, herbal remedies- based model;

(b) A world-wide surge of environmental consciousness, which is making people much more aware of problems such as, the hazards posed to human health hoover-exposure (be it by consumption or use) to the chemical products and byproducts of our industrialized civilization, which have reinforced their interest in a return to the consumption or use of natural non-polluting or non-harmful products; and

(c) A world-wide awareness that the unchecked destruction of the national environment in biological treasure houses, such as the tropical rain forests, may be leading to the irreparable extinction of valuable medicinal plant species, and thus a renewed world interest in the preservation of, and possession of such resources.

This convergence of economic, health, and environmental concerns, has created a powerful set of factors towards the re-evaluation of the usefulness of medicinal plants. Indeed, the world trade of medicinal plants, currently ranges in the order of billions of dollars, having more than quadrupled in the eighties.

The economic value of medicinal plants

Almost two-thirds of the vascular plant species of the world are found in the tropical areas of the South, and, of this, it is estimated that some 35,000 species, at least, may have medicinal value. It is difficult to ascertain the market value of these resources. Too many factors are involved to that effect. In the South itself, from a national view point, medicinal plants are collected and sold in local markets by an incalculable number of forest collectors, middlemen and street vendors. These decentralized and informal market networks are highly difficult to monitor, and easy to ignore in formal national accounting systems. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, about three- quarters of the population of the developing world rely on medicinal plants for their primary health care. Thus, for an estimate of the market value of medicinal plant resources of the Third World, it may be more useful to refer to the more formal and profit-oriented uses of these resources undertaken, or envisaged, in the North. The following assessment of a source close to the pharmaceutical industry, which builds its estimate on plants' extinction prospects, is striking.

Toward the end of 1986, the market study group, Scrip, warned in its World Pharmaceutical News that some 200 drug-yielding species were in danger of being lost. Referring to an article in the Guardian, Scrip suggested that the pharmaceutical industry could lose $100 billion in prescription medicine value. The price tag on the extinction of each medicinal species, say Scrip, is $203 million (Script-World Pharmaceutical News, 1986).

In any case, over 7000 medicinal compounds in modern western pharmacoepoeia are derived from plants, and the retail-value of plant-derived drugs has been estimated at 43 billion dollars in 1985. Some plants from the South are, for example, already very well priced in the world market. Aloe, for example, is a plant greatly in demand by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. At present, one kilogram of dry Aloe pasta is worth around US$500 in the international market, or about 25 times as much the market value of a barrel of crude oil. The major exporter of this product, at the world level, being South Africa, with a 90% of the world production, in spite of its inferior quality, when compared to Aloe produced in other developing countries. The development of phytopharmacy is especially important in countries such as China, where the consumption is massive (some 6,000 herbal remedies are sold, as a result of the development of 500 factories), and where there is an equally important export activity (to some 80 countries).

Private profiteering vs. self-reliance?

As high as the market value of southern medicinal plants may be, the above analysis is not meant to overstress such a value, to the detriment of the even more important non-market values of medicinal plants, as a means to better health, and greater self-reliance, for the countries which possess them, in terms of their cultural heritage, and natural resources.

Such superior non-market values of medicinal plants for southern countries, may be jeopardized by unchecked, individual, ruthless profit-making. One case in point in this regard, is the prospect of Third World countries, finding themselves victims of increased exploitation of their medicinal plants wealth, for private profit of drug companies in the North. This concern should be taken very seriously, at a time when major drug companies, and their home governments in the North, are striving in international negotiations, to secure universal recognition and enforcement for patent, and other property rights on drugs derived from resources of the Third World, which will make Southern countries end up paying new royalties for products developed from them while such companies and governments, also strive for an international regime, guaranteeing free access to raw materials, and to gene pool resources of the South, on the theory of "universal heritage". The following ominous prospect illustrates further the former:

Historically, biological products and processes have not been eligible for intellectual property protection. Current discussion within the European Communities, the OECD, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and most significantly, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) are leading to a change in international conventions that would "industrialize" biology and make manipulated genes and altered species patentable. In effect, the vast biological diversity of the Third World - whether discovered or adjusted - could be rendered the intellectual property of private interests" (Fowler et al., 1988)

To compound the problems, a web of government institutions and research centres of the North, linked to the pharmaceutical houses, fully aware of the problem species extinction, has launched a frantic search for medicinal plants in the Third World. A notable example in this regard, is the National Cancer Institute of the U.S.A., which is sponsoring the single largest tropical plant collecting effort, through a five-year programme, aimed at collecting thousands of species a year, through the dispatching of plant-hunting multidisciplinary teams, to the various corners of the Third World. The question is how all this gathered material and information is to be used, and in whose benefit; As has been noted:

In all this, there is a sense of something wrong. Japanese companies are collecting herbs in Asia. American companies are after plants in Latin America. European companies are opening up research centres in Brazil and India. There is money to be made. But none of it will be made by the people who first discovered the value of these traditional medicines. Neither will they get a share of the $2.000 finders' fee charged by WYCO-search. Yet, as the U.S.A. National Cancer Institute makes very clear, the world wants not only their weeds by their wisdom as well. Ethnobotanists are spending as much time with the people as they are with the plants. Yet, when all is said and done, the patent will be taken out by Hoffmann-La Roche or Monsanto or Eli Lilly - not by the Jivaro, not even by Brazil. But the people must not lose control over their medicine. The poor cannot risk trusting the rich with their health. There is no good health and no end to poverty - without self-reliance. (Fowler et al., 1988).

The serious problems posed by the private misappropriation and misuse of the medicinal plant resources, and knowledge of the Third World, calls for effective and expeditious action, on the part of southern countries, to safeguard the exercise of their legitimate right, to their sovereign use of such resources for the benefit of their people. But it also calls for equally vigorous and timely international cooperative action, to avoid that such misappropriation and misuse do not lead us into a new realm of international conflicts, where the weakest countries and world's people are likely to be the losers, for having their access to valuable natural resources curtailed by the monopolistic pretentions of a powerful few.

Traditional herbal medicine effectiveness and life-styles

On the other hand, one suspects that, no matter how hard the transnational corporation concerns try at apprehending the medicinal plants resources for their private profit-making, they will not be able to take away, from the Third World, the power of its centuries-old traditional medicine, founded on close-to-nature living life styles, which cannot be replicated in any laboratory processing or in the sickness-prone polluted, and alienating urban habitats of the North.

As Hug H. Iltis has stated:

Every basic human adaptation, be in the ears, eyes, skin, lungs and even the brains and mind, requires for its functioning, an appropriate environment similar to that where such structures evolved through million of years. Modern man is the result of one hundred million years of evolution as a mammal, more than forty five million years as a primate, and more than fifteen million years as a monkey. His human traits do not go beyond two million years. The refined human attributes, neurological and physical, date back to a few hundred thousands of years. However unique we think ourselves to be, we are genetically programmed to need pure air and sunlight, green areas, and unpolluted water, as well as natural foods. (Iltis,).

Bearing in mind the importance of the environmental determining factor, the persistent negligence of such a factor by the modern medical establishment for prevention and treatment of diseases defies all rational consideration. For example, it has been estimated that 80% of cancer cases is attributable to environmental causes. The solution to the problem, thus, lies not in "curing" but in preventing cancer. Nevertheless, just about all the resources employed in the fight against cancer go to costly curative programmes, launched with the spirit of some kind of "war" against some evil specific causative agent or with the hope of finding some "miraculous" cure (the same kind of spirit which is driving the U.S.A. National Cancer Institute to its frantic search for miraculous medicinal plants in the South).

On the other hand, the current Northern enthusiasm for the South's medicinal plants, may overlook the fact that, traditional herbal practitioners, prescribe them in a quite different way from the one usually suitable to the exploitation by the pharmaceutical companies. Traditional practitioners prescribe the plants in whole form: as dried leaves, barks, or roots prepared as decoctions, concoctions, as concentrated liquid, or as solid extracts; whereas, the companies, in a largely deceptive or misguided search to improve on nature, aim at identifying "active principles" of plants, in order to isolate and prescribe them in purified form. Purified drugs lose. the intricate synergetic effects of total drug prescriptions which may account decisively for their efficacy. This consideration might render useless much of the over processing and high-tech paraphernalia of transnational companies, to re-admit the field of herbal remedy into its long-standing undisputed domination over chemical drugs. This perhaps, suggest that there may be more resistance against for the preservation of self-reliance in herbal medicine, than could be thought of at first sight. The following analysis might be quite relevant in this regard:

Specialized knowledge is at the base of Western resources, technology and medicine, and of exploitation itself. But once you are using grandmother's medicine, once you are using a system which can be taught to most of the people in the villages, then everyone has the resource. Anyone can pick the neem leaf. Anyone can find the bark of a tree that is local to make a paste for a massage. As long as you cannot control the resources, you cannot exploit by selling that resource (Spellman, 1986).

Finally, in order to round up the illustration about the relevance of life-style considerations, to explain the efficacy of traditional herbal medicine, reference should be made to the importance attributed to the consumption of the right kind of food (even very much a part of the forgotten teachings of the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, who once said: "Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food"). More than half of modern society's diseases are directly related to the kind of food we consume. One does pot have to be a nutritionist, to suspect that, the kind of denaturalized food that our civilization consumes, should have an important bearing on our health. It is estimated that, from 3000 to 12000 chemical components and additives are used today to alter or maintain the colour, taste, or texture of the food we ingest, as well as for the purpose of preservation or "fortifying" to restore to what we eat the nutrients that industrial processing takes away from it. However, we worry more about what we put in our automobiles than what we ingest, and doctors in general keep on ignoring the importance of food in the maintenance or loss of health.

Ultimately, the successful use of medicinal plants in the South is a part of a cultural heritage and natural life-style, common to ancient people all over the world, which the dominant western consumerist - industrialist civilization has almost erradicted from the North, and has been on the way to erradict from the South. The preservation of the wonderful health uses which medicinal plants have provided to mankind for ages, passes through the recovery and preservation of the natural life-style in which such uses thrived. Maybe we are witnessing such a return to nature, for the benefit of the world people's health. Indeed in that regard, a self-assured South, fully aware of its medicinal plant's wealth and of its knowledge as to how best to use it, might have much to teach the North.


Fowler, C., Lachkovics, E., Money, P. and Shand, H. 1988. From Cabbages to Kings. Patent, politics and the poor. Development Dialogue,: 1-2.

Lewis, W. and Elwin-Lewis, M. 1977. Medical Botany

Scrip-World Pharmaceutical News. 1986. Medicinal plants lost? October 1:22.

Spellman, J.W. 1986. Development through indigenous resources. Interculture. October

Suemin, Z. 1858. Lessons from the roving doctors

Well, A. 1989. A new look at botanical medicine. Whole Earth Review.