Amazon people and plants

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Beptopoop taking medicinal plants used to treat headache Concenciao, Amazonia Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Mauri RAUTKARI

Amazon plants, drugs and people

The largest natural chemist store in the world, the Amazon rainforest abounds with compounds that can be derived from plants for countless uses; cures for headaches, snakebites, epilepsy, poison for hunting and spiritual communication. The list goes on.

The Amazon, a library and a first aid box

Over millennia, indigenous people living in the Amazon have accumulated a wealth of information regarding the potential uses of chemicals found in plants, mostly through trial and error. Today, this knowledge benefits not only tribes, but also the variety of communities that live inside and on the fringes of the Amazon rainforest, and potentially the global society.

A variety of plants are used to cure common ailments. Sap extracted from a liana is used to treat fever in children1. In a northwest part of the Amazon Basin, 38 plants are used to treat diarrhoea, 25 for headaches, 18 for muscular pains and 38 for toothaches. Dozens more are also used for snakebites and as contraceptives.2

In addition to medical cures, plants can be used for hunting. For example, rotenone is a potent vasoconstrictor extracted from another common liana, and used to kill fish.3

Shamans, holders of plant knowledge

Knowledge of using plants for curing is usually held by a medicine man, or shaman, who passes on this tradition to an apprentice. It is said that the shaman can communicate with the spirit world, which gives him the knowledge to cure.

Tropical plants and modern medicine

While the use of tropical plants for medical purposes is an interesting incentive for the conservation of rainforests, efforts in that direction are rare.

The promise of miracle drugs made from jungle plants remains elusive, because of the costly and lengthy process to explore, sample and research the incredible range of species found in the Tropics. Instead, many pharmaceutical companies focus on laboratory research using existing compounds.

Worldwide, over 120 pharmaceutical products that are commercially used have been derived from plants, and about 75% were discovered by examining the use of these plants in traditional medicine.4 Of these, many have come from tropical forest plants.

The spectre of biopiracy

Research of tropical plants with potential commercial use has also brought concerns of biopiracy – the practice of using indigenous knowledge of plants for commercial purposes without sharing financial benefits. Obviously, it is vitally important that benefits generated from the commercial use of medicinal plants flow back to the indigenous people.

Cocaine, scourge of the West…

This compound is mostly known as a strong, and usually illegal, narcotic in the western world. It is extracted from a small shrub, Erythtoxylum coca, commonly called coca5, which contains many alkaloids, the most potent one being cocaine.

In South America, the coca plant is used as:
  • Medicine in some rituals6
  • A fatigue-reliever, especially useful high up in the Andes Mountains where air is rarefied. A coca leaf only contains about 1% cocaine, and in this form the effects of the compound are reduced by other ones found in the leaf.7
  • A nutritional supplement, 100 grams of leaves supplying the recommended daily intake of calcium, iron, phosphorus and vitamins A, B2 and E.8
  • A cure, by being applied to wounds.


Virolas (Virola species)

Interacting with the divine is a commonplace element among Amazon indigenous groups, one that is usually assisted by the use of chemicals found in plants. Virolas, plants of the nutmeg family, are generally used in the western Amazon Basin and the Orinoco Basin for ritualistic diagnosis, treatment of disease and spiritual divination9.

The drug is obtained from a substance that exudes from the inner bark of the tree, which is processed into a reddish power. Using an elongated pipe, the substance is then blown into the nostril of the shaman, or of all male members of a community (such as the Yanomamo).

The drug immediately brings tears and mucous discharge, followed by a kind of narcosis where the subject has visual experiences sometimes described as nightmarish.

One with nature

Through the use of plants in their everyday life, indigenous people of the Amazon have evolved a close dependence on natural resources which makes them very vulnerable to environmental deterioration.

The continued destruction of the Amazon rainforest jeopardizes not only local people’s subsistence way of life, but also the potential of further medical breakthroughs for humans worldwide.



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1Plotkin, 1993 in Kricher, 1997
2Schultes 1992 in Kricher 1997
3bis
4Farnsworth, N. R. 1988. Screening Plants for New Medicines. In Biodiversity; Wilson, E. O., ed.; National Academy Press: Washington, D. C.; pp 83-97.
5Balick, 1985 in Kricher, 1997
6Balick, 1985 in Kricher, 1997
7Boucher, 1991 in Kricher, 1997
8Balick, 1985 in Kricher, 1997
9Scholtes and Hoffmann, 1992 in Kricher, 1997

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