Disputed Territory
A fable from the shaman's garden


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Mind, Body, Medicine
Is revolution brewing in medical research?
(February/March 2002 AE)



A comment in the article “Mind, Body, Medicine” (February/March 2002, Academic Exchange) points to a growing dilemma I have witnessed first-hand: “the boundar y between orthodox and alternative medicine is permeable and shifting.”

Whom does that boundary protect? Whom should it protect? These questions came into sharp focus for me last March when a group of Oxford and Emory college students and faculty visited a small Quechua village in the Napo province of Ecuador, as part of the course I teach on social change in developing societies. For four years now, our annual visits have been hosted by the local shaman, Augustine, who has grown increasingly welcoming and trusting with me and the groups I bring to learn from him. Our band of privileged travelers from Emory awakens to an entirely alternative way of conceptualizing the universe and to a better understanding of indigenous cultures now under threat of extinction.

Near the end of our time in the Quechua community, the shaman organized a visit to his medicinal nursery and orchard. A brisk, half-hour walk from our huts through dense rain forest brought us to a four-acre clearing devoted to the cultivation of plants with medical applications.

In bright contrast to our walk through the forest, the sun shone so brilliantly on us in Augustine’s garden that we immediately sought what shade we could find. The shaman slowly and deliberately moved from plant to plant and from tree to tree. At each point, he elaborated on the local name of the plant, which maladies it addressed, and how it was to be prepared. One of our group asked him how many plants he had under cultivation.

He claimed to have more than four hundred and fifty medicinal plants on that plot of land. Even more amazing were his claims that he knew from memory exactly how to use each plant, many in varying combinations.

If Augustine’s claims are true, then his garden holds the world’s record for the number of medicinal plants. Our Ecuadorian guide told us that North American botanists had validated a Peruvian shaman’s claims to two hundred medicinals in his garden—the officially recognized world’s record, according to our guide.
Not long after we left the medicinal grove, a proposal emerged from our group to return to the shaman’s land next year with a digital camera. The project would entail photographing each of the individual plants and cataloging the medical claims specific to each. After the photographs were brought back to the United States, professional botanists would positively identify each one, creating a compendium of Augustine’s plants, probably with its own web site. Just think—another first for Emory!

The potential for medical advance was the chief lure of the proposed project. Another of our group suggested that the local villagers might realize significant financial gains if the shaman’s knowledge were put to practical medical use in rich countries. The group was excited that the proposal might yield subsequent medical benefits; maybe the shaman’s garden really was the philosopher’s stone.

Were the cures for Alzheimer’s or fungal infections lurking right in front of us?
Others of us had an entirely dissonant response to the proposal. Our guiding ethical standard was, above all, to do no harm to the indigenous communities that hosted us. The questions concerning the unintended consequences of the new catalog were not long in coming. Once this array of plants became public and scientifically confirmed, how long would it be before Squibb, Merck, Upjohn, or some other multinational pharmaceutical giant was all over that plot of land? Visions of helicopter pads and cell phones soon displaced our initial utopian naivety. It was easy enough to imagine ways that commercial development of this place and this knowledge could quickly upset the delicate social
balance of the community.

Thus began one of the most important and insightful conversations we shared in this strange and remote place. Would these Amazonian Quechua actually share in the material gains produced by the commercial exploitation of their knowledge? Or would global corporations simply usurp such knowledge in service to their need for increased profit margins?

The history of such cross-cultural encounters does not inspire confidence in a positive outcome for the indigenous people. Pharmaceutical firms have a record of removing plants from their native sites, identifying the medically active components, and then synthesizing them in a North American laboratory. The patent and the subsequent monetary rewards accrue to the corporations. What would it really mean to invite the outside corporate world into this tiny village deep in an immense rainforest? We sat under a thatched roof and considered these weighty questions. By nightfall, we had abandoned the idea for the project through a consensus that only slowly took form. Someone, sometime may invite the world to this special place, but it was not going to be us—not this year, nor the next.

We know we cannot protect this indigenous village. We are not that naïve. The boundary is permeable and shifting. Augustine’s people have already witnessed monumental cultural change in the past thirty years. Our very presence in their community is evidence of its extent. They are very aware of the fact that continued social change is in store for them. The struggle over the privatization of indigenous knowledge is not going to disappear. Rather, it will become more intense as modern, affluent people demand solutions to their problems. The notion that there is a cure out there, a cure that could be a source of enormous profits, will make the intrusion of the modern world into such places inevitable. Our good fortune is to have stumbled onto a place where we can witness the effects of social change and debate their impact on people’s futures. In this small way, we can help students tie together the connections between their private decisions and the consequences for the general well being of a