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Finding Medicines in the Forest: Can Shamans Point the Way?

March 1996

Researchers in Suriname are working hand in hand with shamans--traditional village doctors and healers--to identify and test rainforest plants with possible medicinal value. The idea behind the project is to tap both the rich diversity of natural biological materials--which are a traditional source of drugs--and the wealth of knowledge held by traditional cultures about the healing properties of plants.

Taking the idea a step further, the project's designers believe that developing new anti-cancer drugs and other therapeutic agents from natural products can provide an economic return for the forest people, thereby encouraging the sustainable use of their resources. It's a triple whammy: if successful, the still-experimental projects will encourage biodiversity conservation in developing countries, promote sustainable economic activity, and along the way, discover powerful new drugs.

The Suriname project in Latin America is one of five International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBGs)--special five-year partnerships among universities, pharmaceutical companies, environmental organizations, and developing countries to survey tropical ecologies. Funding of about $2.5 million annually for the five projects comes from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Each of the five partnerships features unprecedented linkages between private and public sectors, and among organizations that have seldom worked together in the past.

The Surinamese project has a special twist. It offers the opportunity to examine the effectiveness of traditional medicine practices in developing countries. To do this, the project is using two different methods of identifying and collecting plants. One team, from the Missouri Botanical Garden, is working in collaboration with the National Herbarium of Suriname to collect plants randomly for testing. Another team, led by an ethnobotanist from Conservation International Suriname, is working with local shamans in a group of villages around Asindopo in central Suriname, collecting plants that the shamans consider important in healing. A Surinamese pharmaceutical company, BGVS, prepares extracts from the plants collected and ships them for testing to Bristol-Myers Squibb, the participating pharmaceutical company in the United States.

David Kingston is the principal investigator on the project. A natural products chemist with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) who has worked with the natural cancer-fighting agent taxol for a number of years, he reports that the project is progressing well.

Researchers have already obtained "hits"--evidence of positive therapeutic activity--from about 80 extracts, out of 1500-2000 extracts tested. That works out to some 30 or 40 promising plants (about half the extracts are duplicates from different parts of the same plant).

Kingston is primarily looking for evidence of cytotoxicity, or anti-cancer activity, while Bristol-Myers Squibb's Pharmaceutical Research Institute is investigating a broader range of therapeutic activity.

So far, it is too early to say which of the two approaches--random collection or reliance on shamanic lore--is proving more effective in identifying promising new drugs.


One of the pitfalls of "bioprospecting," as this type of work is often called, is the danger of falling into a new form of colonialism--extracting and exporting raw materials from developing countries without increasing the capacities of the countries to develop and export their own products.

The ICBG projects are pioneers in developing legal agreements and procedures to prevent the possibility of resource exploitation in third-world countries. The aim is to ensure, through legal agreements, that the host countries, villages, and organizations taking part in the effort share equitably in the benefits of whatever drugs are discovered. Setting up these contractual agreements, however, has required far more time and energy than participants expected. As they scratched the surface, a host of tough issues emerged: How to ensure that the project's contractual arrangements meet the highest standards of fairness, including full disclosure and informed consent? How to protect against over-exploitation of commercial harvesting of plants? What if local authorities object that sacred knowledge or substances should not be made public or should not be commercialized? What if a particular plant extract does not turn out to be a useful drug in itself, but provides an intellectual lead that assists researchers in the development of a valuable drug--who should share in the economic benefits and patent protection?

In the Suriname project, the contractual agreements specify that shamans are, for the first time, eligible to hold intellectual property rights--such as trade secrets, patents, and joint patent rights -- with scientific institutions or pharmaceutical companies. Royalties from plants collected are to be divided among the Surinamese participants, including the Forest Peoples of Suriname, with a portion set aside for any future institutions which play a role in the promotion of health and conservation of natural resources. For new ethnobotanically identified drugs, 50% of the royalties returned to Suriname will go to the forest people.


As many proud inventors and authors know, waiting for royalty payments can take a long time. Royalty payments for new drugs are no different. To counter the likelihood of long delays, the ICBG projects offer the local populations up-front payments, donations of equipment, and training opportunities aimed at increasing the capacity of the local communities to engage in sustainable economic activity--marketing natural forest products, for example, rather than logging or mining.

In the Suriname project, Bristol-Myers Squibb has contributed $50,000 in up-front earnest money to the Forest People's Fund, which is being used to help the 17,000-member Saramaka-Maroon tribe with several projects--running electric lines and water into one of the villages, getting an Eco-Tourism lodge ready for business, arranging for village chiefs to meet with an AmerIndian group in Brazil to discuss ways in which forest products could be developed on a sustainable basis.

Conservation International (CI) has also launched a "Shaman's Apprentice" program within the study villages to help villagers pass on ethnobotanical knowledge to the next generation. The need for such an apprenticeship program was brought home vividly to researchers when two of the elder shamans in the tribe died in the first year of the project. CI is planning to publish a list of the plants identified by the shamans so that the tribe will not lose its inherited wisdom. The publication will be only in the Saramaka language, however, to prevent the local plant lore from being exploited without compensation.

Similarly, the identity of the plants selected by the shamans is revealed only to CI, and not to the pharmaceutical companies, unless there is a "hit" and a separate agreement on divulging the information. There is an ongoing concern with how much shamanic lore is released to the outside world, says Lisa Famolare with CI's Washington office, "but the village chiefs are proud of their tribe's knowledge and excited that people are interested in it." Villagers have an annual opportunity to reconsider their involvement in the project; so far, enthusiasm has been growing.

Looking Ahead

What's next for ICBG? Whether additional projects will be funded along similar lines is up in the air; budget cuts and priority shifts, particularly at U.S. AID, are clouding the future. According to Joshua Rosenthal, who oversees the ICBG program at the Fogarty International Center, the international arm of the National Institutes of Health, "the ICBG program is really a search for models for how to do this type of work. Since the Convention on Biological Diversity, there has been a lot of attention given to the idea of using biodiversity to generate drugs and using the drug discovery process to pay for conservation. But there are really very few models for how to proceed." ICBG's attention to developing these models may be the reason for its intense scrutiny by host countries.

Rosenthal believes that the primary contribution of ICBG may turn out to be the insights the projects offer into "practical mechanics"--how to work with indigenous peoples, how to use contractual arrangements to structure an equitable distribution of benefits, and how to create incentives for people to find economic opportunities by sustaining their precious natural resources.

James Edwards, Executive Officer for NSF's Biological Sciences Directorate, notes that the ICBGs are allowing NSF to explore questions of biodiversity in various reaches of the globe. But just as important, these initiatives are pointing toward an effective mode of interagency cooperation. "Here we have three agencies working together to accomplish what none of them could have done alone," says Edwards. "U.S. AID can fund the scientific infrastructure in developing countries, and NIH is interested in health impacts, but neither of them will fund untargeted fundamental research, which is the raison d'etre of NSF. You put the three agencies together and you get a much stronger package."

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