Mysteries of medicinal plants remain

Caesalpinia A fascinating reflection by Dr S. Allen Coulter, professor of neurology and neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, asks a question that perplexes many people: how did people acquire their detailed knowledge of the effects of plants on the body? Coulter’s musings are prompted by “scientific” studies on Caesalpinia pulcherrima, which reveal active ingredients that match the effects he was told by a wise person some years ago. I feel the same way about complicated food processing methods; how on earth did people learn how to render toxic and inedible things safe and delicious? Like Coulter, I fear we will never really know.

Flickr photograph by Esther17 used under a Creative Commons License.

Rescuing food traditions around the world

Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) “is a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and educational organizations dedicated to rescuing America’s diverse foods and food traditions.” You can download here their great book explaining what these traditions are. There’s also a map of North America’s “totem foods.”

Same topic, different region: Dr Lois Englberger of the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (right, with some of her NGO’s information products) has made Pacific Magazine’s list of “293 Pacific Leaders You Need To Know” because of her efforts to promote local island foods, food crops and food traditions. Congratulations, Lois, and keep up the good work!

Get real, IK academics told

A meeting of Nigerian academics interested in traditional knowledge was told to be a bit more humble in the face of the “uneducated” people in whom such knowledge resides. Many of the papers at the meeting seem to have been concerned with putting traditional knowledge to work, for example to reduce imports of pharmaceuticals by replacing them with traditional medicinal plants. One wonders, though, about the knowledge levels — traditional or otherwise — of the speaker who apparently said:

“conventional drugs are chemicals and therefore toxic. They are costly, but natural products are environmentally friendly. Unlike chemicals, natural products promote biodiversity and conservation.”

Seems to me that a little more depth of understanding is needed on all sides. Sure, traditional knowledge can be useful. But it needs to be tempered with a bit of rational investigation.

Map it or lose it?

Funny how stories which originate from opposite ends of the world but that are closely related sometimes appear — through sheer coincidence — on the same day. Here’s a case in point. Exhibit number one: an article on how Ndorobo tribesmen “over-ran a protected forest reserve in eastern Uganda last April and hacked down thousands of trees (which had been) planted by a Netherlands-based firm” called FACE (Forests Absorbing Carbon dioxide Emissions) as part of a carbon credits scheme. There’s no doubt the people were forced from their ancestral lands back in the 90s, but FACE says that these communities retained rights over some forest resources. Big of them. The article doesn’t say what kinds of trees were planted, nor what other resources the displaced people retained rights to, apart from firewood. Now here’s exhibit two: indigenous communities in Amazonia are using GPS and Google Earth to map their ancestral lands and the resources they manage within them. You have to wonder whether this technology would have helped the Ndorobo.