Green Piracy

This article was researched, compiled and written by:- Alessandra Dalevi – 1997

Are the rainforest countries being doubly robbed of their natural resources, first when the developed nations take away their natural riches and their peoples’ knowledge and then again when they sell back the products taken for ski-high prices?

There are estimates that every year the First World withholds from the rainforest nations $5.4 billion in royalties. If this is true, much of this money should be in Brazil’s pocket, the country with the largest and most biodiverse forest in the world. Salegen is a new medicine sold in tablet form used in the treatment of xerostoma, a disease also known as dry mouth syndrome in which the person is not able to produce saliva. Its active ingredient is pilocarpine, a substance extracted from jaborandi, a plant native to Northeastern Brazil.

The Brazilian Indians have known about jaborandi’s therapeutic properties for generations. The American lab that developed the new drug could have saved itself a lot of research and aggravation by just knowing what jaborandi means: in Tupi-Guarani dialect the word means “slobber-mouth plant” and the shrub-like tree has been used since immemorial times by the natives for that: inducing salivation.

Pilocarpus jaborandi is an integral part of Brazilian folk medicine. Caboclos (non-Indian jungle residents) and Indians prepare a tea with its leaves and drink it as a diuretic or to induce sweat. Diabetics and asthma sufferers use it as expectorant and stimulant via an infusion made with the powdered leaves. Arthritis and pleurisy—a lung inflammation—have also been treated with jaborandi. And when applied to the scalp, a potion made with the leaves is believed to prevent baldness. Merck Laboratory has marketed a product made from jaborandi called Policarpina, which is used in the treatment of glaucoma.

All in all, the little Amazon tree is nature’s miracle drug like hundreds of others whose secrets many times are only known by shamans who have been passing this oral knowledge from generation to generation. When the first Europeans landed in the Americas, the indigenous peoples from the region, utilizing plants and other natural substances had already developed a sophisticated medical system that included diagnosis and treatment of all kinds of diseases.

With the skyrocketing prices of developing new drugs and a seeming exhaustion of the traditional allopathic medicine, more and more laboratories around the world are showing interest in this wealth of folk medicine knowledge. The costs of researching the medicinal powers of plants are far less than trying to produce synthetic drugs. Besides, the sheer number of different chemicals that exist in the Amazon, for example, dwarfs the capacity that scientist have of creating new products

Brazilians have been noticing foreigners’ covetous eyes on their natural and floral wealth and many people think the country is being robbed by unscrupulous biopirates, be it under the disguise of missionary or scientific expeditions, be it through multinationals claiming a stake in this wealth often times considered mankind’s public domain patrimony.

Many companies have also used the argument that Brazil has no right to demand compensation and royalties for its resources when the country is an infamous pirate itself producing medicines patented overseas without paying any royalties to its creators. This problem, however, has been addressed recently by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, which has passed a law recognizing foreign patents for several products including pharmaceutical ones.

Among Brazilian herbal products widely used in the country, santo daime (Vine Banisteriopsis) and quebra-pedra (Parietaria officinalis) have been patented in the U.S.. The first substance, extracted from a vine, and also known as jagupe and ayahuasca, has hallucinogenic properties and is used in connection with some Indian religious rituals and some sects.

The International Plant Medicine Corporation got its patent. The quebra-pedra (stone breaker, literally), also known as fura-paredes (walls piercer, literally) is prepared as an infusion for kidney ailments. In the U.S., it became a medicine for hepatitis. In Japan, an Amazon plant called muirapuama is being sold as a cure for impotency and as an aphrodisiac.

In Canada, Biolink, a small and new company has patented rupununine, a substance extracted from the seeds of bibiri (Octotea radioei), an Amazon plant. Roraima’s Wapixana Indians use the substance as a contraceptive. The Canadian lab hopes to develop a product that will fight tumors and AIDS. Biolink also wants to patent cumaniol, a substance extracted from a poison made from wild manioc, that is used to catch fishes in the Amazon. The new product, according to the Canadian company, might be used to stop the heart during some delicate surgeries.

Another herb abundant in Brazil has become a worldwide phenomenon being touted as the natural Prozac. It is the Hypericum perforatum, better known in Brazil as jasim, erva-de-são-joão, or hipericão. In Germany, the product, which is taken as a tea or in the form of tablets, is being prescribed by doctors 25 times more than Prozac. German doctors just last year wrote 3 million prescriptions for the product. The craze is also starting to catch up in the U.S.. In Brazil, the herb is being commercialized under the name Extrato de Jasim or Hipérico. A study published in the United States shows that only 2.4% of depressive patients treated with Hypericum presented side effects, while side effects are common for more than 30% of those taking Prozac.

The First Caretakers

Bepkororoti, an ancient shaman unjustly killed by fellow Mêbêngôkre tribesmen while seeking his heriditary share of tapir meat after a hunt, returns in the form of dangerous storms which threaten the tribe and its crops. To appease his spirit, natives, acknowledging his fondness for honey, leave honey and pollen in disturbed hives. The result is re-colonization of these hives by certain species of bees. From the fear of phantasmagorical retribution comes the reintroduction of species to once-barren hives. The story of Bepkororoti is just one example of the way in which indigenous mythology contributes to biodiversity.

For many indigenous tribes, it is a human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the natural world. Nature is inclusive; human beings are merely a part of the greater whole. In indigenous cultures, rituals and ceremonies serve to prevent overconsumption of natural resources; to these populations, environmental ethics are discernible in the very structure and organization of the natural world.

The native inhabitants use the forest’s products, among other things, for construction materials, food and alcoholic beverages, fuel, oral hygiene, and crafts. For those who live deep in the jungles of the Amazon basin and other areas of great biodiversity, the forest acts not only as a home, but as a pharmacy and general store as well.

Studies have consistently demonstrated the importance of a diverse ecosystem to indigenous tribes. The Chacobo of Bolivia employ 82% of species found in a measured area; the Quijos Quichua of Ecuador use more than 90% of a measured plot. The Shuar use at least 245 medicinal species in their pharmacoepeia. The indigenous peoples’ subsistence comes primarily from those resources found within their general vicinity. Given the limits of these resources, they operate efficiently. An example is the Kayapo, who create trails in the woods and carry seeds and tubers to plant along the trails when they defecate.

They are dependent upon their local ecosystem, and have derived a great understanding of their surroundings from long-term cyclical observation over many years in which they have been able to observe seasonally reoccurring phenomena. In fact, often the indigenous understanding exceeds that of the Western scientist. Ethnobotanists — scientists who study the relationship between people and plants — have encountered native classifications of strains of wild species which, to their trained eye, offered no tangible differences. For example, the Barasana Indians of Amazonian Colombia can identify all tree species in their territory without having to refer to the fruit or flowers. Richard Evans Schultes calls this the indigenous ability to recognize “hidden” diversity in plant species.

It is through necessity that the natives make such recognitions. Different species serve different uses. With no written language, the indigenous orally transfer this knowledge from the elders to their students. One ethnobotanist has determined that it is this very nonliterate tradition which influences processes in which rationalistic knowledge is acquired about ecological associations. The forest serves not only as a home, but as a laboratory and school as well; it is the universe from which arises all indigenous social institutions and sacred rites. “The Indians often tell me that the difference between a colonist [a non-indigenous settler] and an Indian,” notes Martin von Hildebrand, Colombian anthropologist, “is that the colonist wants to leave money for his children and that the Indians want to leave forests for their children.”

This is precisely what the indigenous have done for generations. In “The Pristine Myth,” University of Wisconsin geographer William Denevan explores the history of the American landscape since 1492, concluding that the first peoples of the America had, in fact, modified forest extent and composition; created and expanded grass lands; and engaged in agricultural practices which had local impacts on soil, microclimate, hydrology and wildlife.

Today, indigenous agricultural and gathering practices continue to transform the landscape in manners which often encourage biodiversity and sustainable use. Studies have shown the effect of indigenous soil management and in situ plant management on biodiversity: Gathering strategies such as rotation of gathering areas prevent the decrease or loss of some resources; enhancement strategies, such as sowing seeds in areas occupied by populations of wild plants or weeds and of course, protection of plants through the elimination of competitors and predators also serve to transform the landscape.

As subsistence farmers, most indigenous engage in sustainable practices. Problems arise when economic pressures force tribes to engage in the growing of cash crops or when local resources have been plundered by outsiders of the community. Then, as with most societies in similar circumstances, the indigenous are prone to overuse resources, overhunt game, and fell forests for timber.

Non-sustainable practices arise from differences between societies resulting in conflicts between the Western economic system and its demand for products and the indigenous ethos of humankind as nature’s steward. The relationship between these conflicting interests is best understood through the concept of “ecosystem people” and “biosphere people.” The former are those who live mostly on those resources which have been gathered or produced within their immediate vicinity, whereas the latter are characterized as those who have access to resources from all over the world and are able to transport themselves to locations in which these resources are found.

While ecosystem people are at risk to local catastrophes which could eliminate their resource base, the same catastrophe has a minimum impact upon the biosphere people, who can simply draw more heavily upon a different ecosystem. Because of their lack of integration and a feeling of independence from the environment, biosphere people may never develop the strong cultural ethics necessary for wise resource management. The next section of this paper explores the consequences of these conflicting world views.

The Price of Progress

Each year, an estimated 170,000 km2 (approximately 65,637 square miles) of tropical forest is felled, often to satisfy the world market for tropical woods or to provide space for cattle ranching. In Eco Travels in Brazil alone, the forests are disappearing by an alarming rate of nearly 30,000 km2 (approximately 11,583 square miles) per year. Between 1991 and 1994, forest clearing in Brazil increased almost 34% and according to a recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund, during the last two years forest destruction has further increased by another 28%.

Often the destruction has been the result of government policies promoting cattle ranching and logging through tax incentives. Addressing the House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs in July 1993, Luciano Pizzatto, representing the Special Commission on Indigenous Rights of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil, testified: “. . . in some municipalities it is still even considered that only deforestation proves that land is used.” In economically-depressed Brazil, in which many landless peasants pressure the government for land reform, the idea of unexploited land is counter to what many believe are the country’s economic needs.

For this reason, loggers and miners continue to infiltrate demarcated indigenous territories, in spite of the 1988 Constitution, which explicitly expresses Brazil’s commitment to ensure that the lands traditionally occupied by the indigenous population are intended for their permanent possession and that they have exclusive rights to use and benefit of the resources found therein. Return of traditional land to the natives spawns great resentment in a country in which 45 percent of the land belongs to 1 percent of the population. It seems unreasonable to some of Brazil’s landless that approximately 217.5 million acres are given to about 250,000 individuals.

Lacking resources and the desire to enforce the law, the Brazilian government has stood by and allowed continued infiltration and exploitation of these demarcated lands. In October 1988, 14 Ticunas were killed in an ambush by loggers. The Gorotire have experienced mercury poisoning due to its use in mining operations. Between 1988 and 1996, 14 Macuxí have been killed in the state of Roraima and not a single case has ended in a conviction.

But it is not only those in search of riches who have negatively impacted the indigenous. For a long time, poorly-conceived development projects overseen by multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank were responsible for the displacement and deaths of many indigenous peoples. Indigenous lands have been described as a type of ‘no-mans-land’ when it comes to finding sites for development projects; it is the native lands which are always the first option for mining, hydroelectric projects, and land reform.

In this century alone, some 80 entire societies have vanished in Brazil. Yet extinction is only an extreme of other ongoing problems. In addition to loss of land and population decreases, many indigenous tribes face the loss of their very identity. Acculturation has long detracted from cultural identity. Now, the threat is even greater as generations of knowledge may be lost with the passing of elders who have no students interested in continuing the ancient traditions. “Of all the shamans with whom I have lived and worked in the northeast Amazon,” writes ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, “not a single one had an apprentice.” With the growth of Western medicine use, many no longer feel it necessary to practice shamanism. Yet, often it is the shaman who harbors the greatest knowledge of the forest and its products. As one old Amazonian shaman said, “It is true the youngsters do not want to learn. One day the medicines that the missionaries send from the city will no longer arrive. The people will come to me to relieve their pains, to conquer the evil spirits that kill their children. But I will be gone, and I will have taken my plants with me.”


It is estimated that the Third World countries with rainforests from which natural resources and indigenous knowledge are being taken are denied $5.4 billion in royalties every year. How much are the rainforests worth? Hard to say. A frequently mentioned estimate puts is at $43 billion just for medicines made from plants . This amount was proposed by P. P. Principe in the book The Economic Significance of Plants and Their Constituents as Drugs published in 1989. As for the profits that are returned to the natives, Darrell Posey, director of the Programme for Traditional Resource Rights at the Oxford Centre for the Environment in Great Britain and researcher for the Brazilian National Council for Science and Technology at the Goeldi Museum in Belém, state of Pará, in Brazil, estimates them at less than 0.001 percent.

While Brazil and many other Third World countries are still discussing how to implement the decisions of Rio’s 1992 Earth Summit, with the U.S. dragging its feet on ratifying those documents, the United States has become a hotbed for biopiracy. More than 200 companies have been established here to collect foreign material, an activity that is elegantly called bioprospection, but others prefer to call biopiracy. These prospectors or pirates, who explore everything from plants to human genes, have become a $60-million-a-year industry in the U.S..

According to Luiz Frederico Arruda, a professor at Universidade de Manaus, Amazonas state capital, at least 20,000 plant samples are taken from the Amazon every year. “Biopiracy has two degrees,” said professor Laymert Garcia from Unicamp (Universidade de Campinas), in the state of São Paulo, in an interview with the weekly news magazine Veja. “In the first one, taking advantage of a lack of legislation, they patent substances from the forests, without due retribution as envisioned by international treaties. In the second, they get the patent for something that is being used freely. While the patent has legal value only in the country in which it was registered, it is normal that the rest of the world ends up accepting it.”

Brazilian Celso Fiorillo, a doctor in environment and author of Manual do Direito Ambiental (Manual of Environmental Law) has denounced the fact that Brazilian Indians are being used as guinea pigs and that the country’s flora and fauna are being exploited by multinationals. In an interview with the daily newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, Fiorillo stated: “Groups that are economically stronger and possess high technology enter the Amazon region in many different ways in search of natural products. Afterwards, they industrialize them and resell them to the Third World Country with infinitely superior prices.” He calls the Genoma Project undertaken by the G7, the world’s seven richest capitalist countries, a grave and dangerous sin because “it implies patenting life.”

Fiorillo calls biopiracy a serious breach of the country’s sovereignty. “Globalization is the modern name for colonialism. There is a direct connection between this neoliberal policy and the seizing of our environment’s wealth by developed countries.” He also criticizes the Brazilian government for paying lip service in defense of the Amazon to appease the press while at same time cutting the staff in charge of guarding the forest. “The number of public servants caring for the Amazon is ridiculous,” he says. “The Ministry of the Environment and the Legal Amazon have been treated as mere perfumery, although it is essential to maintain the Amazon’s sovereignty and environment.”SUBTLE PIRACY

Biopiracy can be very sophisticated and hardly noticeable. Here is a classic example. In 1988, the American magazine National Geographic published an article about the medicinal uses of the tiki uba, a plant used by the Amazon Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians. The people from Merck Pharmaceutical read the story, studied the substance and started to develop a product based on their “discovery”. No consideration or reward has been given to the Urueu-Wau-Waus, who are on the brink of extinction.

Sérgio Ferreira, the president of SBPC (Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência—Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science), has denounced the exploitation of the natural and intellectual resources of Brazil without due compensation. But he also recognizes that part of the problem has to do with the Brazilian lack of initiative and the absence of a reasonable policy of what to do with the country’s vast resources.

Brazilian law against this kind of piracy has been vague and enforcement of it is non-existent. In spite of that, times seem to be changing. Ruediger von Heininghaus, 72, an Austrian naturalized Brazilian, for example, is being prosecuted by the state of Acre accused of selling to German labs the Kaxinawá Indians knowledge of medicinal plants. He is the president of Selvaviva, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that maintains a plant greenhouse in Acre. “I am innocent,” says von Heininghaus. “All I’ve done was to help the Indians themselves who asked for my assistance.”

Biopiracy is nothing new in Brazil. The most infamous case is that of Englishman Henry Alexander Wickham, who in 1876 stole rubber tree seeds, hiding them between banana leaves leading to a new plantation of the Hevea brasiliensis in the British colonies in Ceylon, Malaysia. In a few decades the region would become the main exporter of latex, ruining in the process the rubber tree-based Amazon economy. Wickham was knighted by King George V and loathed by Brazil’s rubber barons who called him “the Executioner of Amazonas.”

Long before that, right after the discovery of the land by the Portuguese in 1500, the discoverers themselves and then other Europeans just stole from the Indians the secret of how to extract a red pigment from pau-brasil (brazil wood). Emblematic of today’s situation, in which flora and fauna continue to disappear, the wood that gave Brazil its’ name has completely disappeared, being preserved only in a few botanical gardens.


During the 1992 World Summit on Ecology in Rio, the 144 countries present signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, a document establishing that communities or countries must be paid royalties when companies develop products based on their natural resources or indigenous knowledge. That document stressed the role native populations have on conservation and the fostering of biological diversity, recognizing “the close and traditional dependence of many indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles on biological resources.”

These peoples have not only taken from the land. They have contributed to biodiversity by planting and transplanting. To describe how these apparently wild places have been transformed by the Indians’ presence, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has coined the term “cultural landscapes”.

This assertion has important implications for those defending the rights of indigenous populations over certain knowledge or natural product. According to the law, wild species are public domain and no one can claim them as their property. If the case can me made, however, that they have been altered by human presence, natives of certain areas can claim proprietary rights over some species.

The World Council of Indigenous Peoples, although somewhat tortuously, defines indigenous peoples as “population groups who from ancient times have inhabited the lands where they live, who are aware of having a character of their own, with social traditions and means of expression that are linked to the country inherited from their ancestors, with a language of their own, and having certain essential and unique characteristics which confer upon them the strong conviction of belonging to a people, who have an identity in themselves and should be thus regarded by others.”

Rio’s Earth Summit has helped the indigenous peoples worldwide to get better organized and define their objectives and ways of achieving them. Since then, they have been active in proposing and discussing laws that might help them, through their own NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) such as COICA, the World Rainforest Movement, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Indigenous Peoples’ Biodiversity Network.

In a 1994 statement, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) has expressed what they think about the need to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights: “We indigenous peoples need a system of protection and recognition of our resources and knowledge, which is in conformity with our world view and contains formulas that will prevent appropriation of our resources and knowledge.”WHAT TO DO?

Five years have passed since Eco-92 and Brazil has yet to pass a law that would make the country profit from the resolutions made at that summit meeting. The question has been dragging in Congress without any hint of an agreement soon. Senator Marina Silva, who is from the state of Acre and who worked as a rubber tapper herself as a child, has introduced legislation that generated plenty of debates.

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, which constitute the Andean Pact, are more advanced than Brazil in finding ways to stop biopiracy and at the same time have started getting paid for their natural resources. Other countries such as Chile, Costa Rica, and the Philippines have already passed legislation dealing with the subject.

In the bill drafted by the Brazilian legislature, articles 18 to 29 deal with the issue of intellectual property. The articles establish among other things that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their knowledge and formulas a secret. The bill also recognizes their right to collectively apply for protection under the law of international property rights. Indigenous peoples would also be able to share research data, patents and would have a guaranteed monetary reward for products derived from their knowledge.

Congressmen are having a hard time, however, agreeing on what is fair compensation and who should receive royalties in case a product is marketed. Should it be the Indians, the area where the substance or the knowledge was found, the state, the nation? While the lawmen delay their resolution, biopirates feel free to roam the country.

In England, the United Kingdom Royal Botanical Garden, which has thousands of plants from the Amazon region, has stopped its research with Brazilian plants alleging that the murky legal situation would not guarantee that they have the rights over a product once it is developed. Tropical plants from Costa Rica and Chile continue to be researched since there is clear legislation in those countries and they will receive part of future royalties.


Interested in buying the DNA of Amazon Indians? Samples of them are as close as any researcher’s computer keyboard, for as little as $500. Installed at in the Internet, the American New-Jersey-based company Coriell Institute for Medical Research has what it calls the human genetic mutant cell repository, which is sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), DNA samples from the Karitiana and the Suruí, two indigenous groups from the state of Rondônia. Since the Karitiana have heard that their blood is making money they started demanding compensation from anyone trying to draw blood from them.

Some experts believe that all that interest about these Indians has to do with the fact that they hardly have malaria, a common disease throughout the Amazon. Their DNA might have the key for a cure. Indian blood sleuths have also been encouraged by the news that German laboratory Boehringer Ingelheim bought for $70 million genetic material from an African tribe collected by U.S. company Sequana Therapeutics, which believes to have found the key to cure asthma. There was no compensation for the tribesmen.

The Coriell case is not an isolated one. It is part of the worldwide effort put together by the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) since 1988. The work is being coordinated by the Human Genome Diversity Project, which intends to collect blood from small and isolated communities threatened with extinction. While part of the research aims is to find ways to improve human health, some groups close to indigenous populations criticize the project for its methods, and have dubbed it the “human vampire project”. There have been many instances in which the blood was made available in the market after having been collected without previous consent of the people involved. Oddly enough, the U.S. Department of Commerce has applied for a patent for cell lines developed from the blood of a Papua New Guinea tribe. Listed as inventors of the product are the U.S. government’s own scientists and the anthropologist who introduced them to the tribesmen.


Today, at least some companies, with a social conscience have been trying to pay back in some way the communities from which they derive new products. Case in point, there is U.S.-based Aveda Corp,, a cosmetic company that utilizes only natural ingredients and is using the jenipapo tree (Genipa americana) to get the rare blue pigment for some of its 700 products. The firm is compensating the Guarani-Kaiowa Indians who helped them, by building bamboo and sapé grass huts for them to live in, and planting 100,000 trees in their reservation in Dourados, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The benefits shall amount to $50,000.

Few companies have been so active in developing medicinal products from the Brazilian flora as San Francisco-based Shaman Pharmaceuticals. Two of these products that use plants from the Amazon—Provir and Virend—are in their last phase of development. Both utilize crotão latex.

Provir, which was already subjected to a battery of tests in the first quarter of 1997, is designed to treat chronic diarrhea. Other tests with AIDS patients suffering from diarrhea are being conducted right now. As for Virend, it might put an end to the search of an up-to-now elusive cure for genital herpes, a disease that afflicts 30 million Americans.

Shaman has already researched close to 7,000 plants from the Amazon. According to the company, when they market a new product derived from tropical plants they reward in some way the community where the plant was found. In a recent interview with the Brazilian daily Folha de São Paulo, Megan Ravel, communications director for the company, talked about Shaman’s work in Brazil: “For the most part our experiments go nowhere, but if we are able to develop at least one drug that works we can consider ourselves victorious.”

As for paying back the communities involved in the research, Megan said: “It depends on how much we make with a discovery and it also depends on what the community needs. We might build a school, a hospital, a nursery, or something else. But the property rights for the medicine are ours because we were the ones who developed it.”

Despite controversy and accusations of abusing the Indian population’s good faith, the London-based cosmetic manufacturer Body Shop, which has a chain of stores throughout the world, continues its joint effort with the Kayapo Indians. They buy annually $160,000 in Brazil nuts from them for the manufacturing of shampoos and conditioners.

There are many people who believe that mankind in general and the pharmaceutical industry in particular are indebted to the healers and shamans from the tropics. Mark J. Plotkin, an American ethnobotanist who wrote Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest , is one who thinks so. “Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down,” he says. Dr. Plotkin is the vice president of Washington-based Conservation International and former director of the plant program at the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

He is in favor of developing alternative strategies to foster tropical forestry studies while helping native populations. According to him, Shaman Pharmaceuticals and Healing Forest Conservancy (a non-profit organization that pledges to return all profits from new medicines derived from the forest to the indigenous people) are the wave of the future and an example to be followed.


Instead of just crying foul and complaining about foreign robbers stealing their natural resources, some Brazilian researchers and institutes, as reported by the daily Folha de São Paulo, are trying themselves to unchain the curative properties of Brazilian herbs and plants. There are at least a dozen products being tested, from malaria and diabetes medicines to contraceptives and potions for poisonous snakebites. Chemist Benjamin Gilbert from Fundação Oswaldo Cruz in São Paulo, for example, has been testing the picão (Bidens pilosa) tea, a popular recipe in the Amazon for those afflicted with malaria or hepatitis B.Also in search of a cure for malaria, the Centro de Plantas Medicinais (Medicinal Plants Center) from Amapá’s Instituto de Estudos e Pesquisas (Studies and Researches Institute) has been studying a recipe devised by the Waipi Indians, who use an oil made from the plant andiroba (Carapa guianensis). The same group is also in the final phase of tests with 60 diabetics who are being treated with capsules made from pata-de-vaca with promising results, according to the researchers.

At the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)a group of researchers led by chemist Ângelo da Cunha Pinto has been studying the effects of sucuuba (Imathantus sucuuba) in the treatment of tumors. In lab tests the substance was able to repair the yeast’s DNA. Walter Mors, another UFRJ’s chemist, who is retired, for 10 years has been studying the anti-ophidic properties of erva-botão (Eclipta prostata). Tests with lab mice were very promising and the solution prepared with the herb, according to Mors, was effective in neutralizing the poison of every kind of snake he tested. Better yet, he has found out that the potion can be taken as a preventive medicine. “If any laboratory decides to invest,” he announced, “we might have a commercial product in five years.”


In February, the Environment Ministry presented to the World Bank a project to protect Brazilian biodiversity in the Amazon and the Mata Atlântica, a strip of forest along Brazil’s coast. Together they comprise an area of 168.7 million hectares, 19% of the national territory, harboring more than 75% of the country’s biodiversity.The plan is to create seven ecological corridors, joining big conservation pockets, national parks, Indian reservations, and ecological stations. The first two corridors should be established this month at a cost of $44 million. One of them is the area of the Mata Atlântica between the states of Bahia and Espírito Santo, the other is the Amazon central corridor, which includes Jaú’s National Park and areas in the Solimões River basin. Indigenous peoples and other people inside the area, including farmers will be encouraged to engage in activities that preserve the forest and allow a sustainable development.

Landowners will have the extra incentive of lower taxes if they don’t destroy the jungle. The so-called Pilot Program for the Protection of the Brazilian Tropical Forests, known for short as PP/G7, is being financed by the World’s Bank General Environmental Facility (GEF) and a consortium of European banks.

The plan should face challenges in its implementation in several areas in the states of Acre, Pará, and Roraima where the land is being occupied by posseiros (squatters) and garimpeiros (precious stones prospectors). Some areas of the Mata Atlântica were left out of the plan because the expropriation price would be too high. In this case, the government decided, through fiscal incentives and special rural credit, to encourage farmers to establish private reserves of the natural patrimony in which the area would be kept intact and open to ecotourism.


Amid all the dispute about the Brazilians Indians, few people know that they are in dismal shape, having a life expectancy comparable only to the poorest countries in Africa. Worse yet, between 1993 and 1995, while life expectancy increased in the whole world, Brazilian Indians had their rate diminished by 5.6 years. According to the Instituto de Medicina Tropical de Manaus (Manaus Tropical Medicine Institute), the IMTM, a Brazilian Indian in 1995 should expect to live an average of 42.6 years compared to 67 years for the Brazilian population as a whole.The Amazon Indian lives even less than his counterpart in other areas of the country. Those at the Javari river valley, for example, have a life expectancy of a mere 24.5 years. The main causes of death in this region are malaria and hepatitis, both brought by loggers who invade their territory. The Yanomami warriors do not have a much better lot in life. They live on average 34.1 years since garimpeiros started to make contact with them in 1987.

Rômulo César Sabóia Moura, the scientist in charge of the research for the IMTM, attributes this situation to the little medical care given the Indians by Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio—National Foundation for the Indian), a government entity. While the so-called SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde—Uniform Health System) spends a meager average of $100 per Brazilian a year, Funai invests five times less: $22 per Indian a year. It is estimated that there are 329,000 Indians in Brazil today, down from 2 to 5 million at the time the Europeans arrived.


There is a renewed interest in medicinal plants all over the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) now has a list including 150 plants that its experts consider therapeutic. And in Brazil right now there is a boom of natural medicine. At least 5 million Brazilians use homeopathy as their first choice for treatment, creating an annual half a billion dollar market.While in the US there are no more than 3,000 homeopathic doctors, in Brazil there are 13,000 of them. In 1982 there were a mere 300. No other country with the exception of India has more homeopaths. And, in the last 20 years, the number of homeopathic pharmacies has skyrocketed from 10 to 1600. Two thousand pharmacists produce 3,000 medicinal formulas using minerals, animals, and most of all plants. There are also 250 dentists and 100 veterinarians specialized in homeopathy.

Modern pharmacology does not ignore the therapeutic effects of plants. Forty percent of the time industrialized medicines use plants as their active ingredient, although generally in a synthesized more concentrated formula. The active ingredient in aspirin, for example, was originally found in the bark of willow trees.

According to the American publication The Nutrition Business Journal, 60% of Yankee physicians have on occasion referred a patient to alternative treatments, including naturopathy, herbalism, and homeopathy. In the U.S., the market for herbal supplements grossed over $700 million in 1995 and it is expected that this amount will grow to $1.6 Billion by the year 2000.

Botanists believe that from 35,000 to 70,000 plant species are used throughout the world as medicine, most of them growing in tropical forests. And in the U.S. there are at least 120 widely used prescription drugs made from 95 species of plants, 39 of which are originally from the rainforest.

Roughly 1/4 of all pharmaceutical products in the market today use substances from the rainforest. Among widely used products based on plants we have aspirin, morphine, and codeine. There is also digitalis, used as a heart medicine; curare, as a muscle relaxant; and colchicin, prescribed as an anti-inflammatory.


Five hundred years ago, 14% of the earth’s surface was covered by rainforest. Since then, an area of 3.5 million square miles of these forests, roughly equivalent to the size of the United States, has been destroyed. The rainforest today occupies only 6% of the earth. As a consequence of this destruction it is estimated that 1.5 million life form species were lost and 50,000 more continue to be destroyed every year. All this was done and continues to be done in the name of progress and allegedly for economic reasons, even though studies have shown, for example, that 2.4 acres of land in the Amazon can produce $1,000 of annual income when clear cut, but generate $6,800 a year when left intact.Despite all the destruction, it is believed that the rainforests still preserve 30 million different species, roughly half of all life forms on earth and 2/3 of all plants. This without mentioning the importance of these forests to the earth’s weather and atmosphere. A third of the world’s tropical forests are in Brazilian territory and, as for the Amazon forest, two thirds of it are in Brazil. The country still boasts the Pantanal (the world’s largest wetland), the Cerrado (the world’s most biologically diverse Savannah), and the Mata Atlântica, an even richer life laboratory than the Amazon, despite its much smaller size.

At the time of Brazil’s discovery, the Mata Atlântica, the strip of luscious forest covering the entire Brazilian coast, occupied an area equivalent to 12% of today’s national territory. In its widest area the strip was as large as 300 miles. Today this treasure has been reduced to 10% of its original size. From 1985 to 1990 alone 1.2 billion trees were cut. Its destruction is a textbook case of how to dilapidate an inestimable patrimony.

The devastation accompanied the several cycles of the Brazilian economy, all of them much more interested in immediate profit instead of a long-term planned investment. First was the brazil wood cycle that would cut this valuable tree destroying in the process 6,000 sq. km of the forest. In the XVIII century, the discovery of gold and precious stones gave the jungle a respite while 2,000 tons of gold were dug up. During the sugar cane and coffee cycles as well as the cocoa tree plantation cycle in the state of Bahia, huge areas of jungle would be burned down to make room for these crops. From 1.5 million sq. km 500 years ago, the Mata Atlântica today is just a sad shadow of its previous self, with just 95,000 sq. km left.

Despite all the recent rhetoric in Brazil about preserving the green, Brazilians were and still are too eager to cut trees. Not before the 80s did the first green groups start to voice their outrage and the theme became a national issue. In Brazil, the jungle and backwardness have always been equated. Caipira and caipora, two words to designate a rustic man without culture have their roots in Tupi terms that referred to inhabitants of the forest.

“The Amazon’s chemiodiversity is much bigger than the forest’s visible part,” says Massuo Kato from Universidade de São Paulo’s (USP) Chemistry Institute. Kato has worked in the development of a new classification for the Amazon’s vegetables based on the chemistry of its fruits. This should help to find what is the best time for picking the fruit as well as indicate which part of it has more active elements.

There are tens of millions of species in the world, according to scientists speculations, even though they were able to describe less than 1.5 million up to now, half of them living in rainforests. Some scientists believe that that proportion would grow to 90% in favor of the tropical forest if a complete tally of all species was ever accomplished. Brazil is home to the greatest number of insects species, as well as of terrestrial vertebrates, amphibians, primates, freshwater fish, and flowering plants. With a handful of other countries, it is classified by scientists as a megadiversity land.


Most of all, the military are today in the forefront of a movement to keep foreigners out of the Brazilian jungle. Some of them are even ready to go to war, literally, in defense of the rainforest against what they call the “international cupidity”.”We can start a guerrilla war over there as the Vietnamese have done,” said reformed colonel Gélio Augusto Fregapani at the end of last year in Rio, during a forum called “Amazon – Threat of Territorial Losses, Occupation, and Development,” which was part of the Third National Encounter on Strategic Studies, a meeting organized by the Escola Superior de Guerra ( Higher School of War).

It was a rare instance of the right and left putting aside their differences to join efforts against a common enemy. Former Army minister Leônidas Pires Gonçalves was there as well as Roraima’s governor Neudo Campos, and historian Lygia Garner, who teaches at Southeast Texas University.

The assembly’s indignation was palpable when lieutenant-colonel, Marcus Vinicius Belfort Teixeira, who at 43 is considered one of the youngest most active military voices today, denounced the U.S. effort to internationalize the Amazon. And the mood was belligerent when the Air Force officer told about a sticker circulating on car windows in London that say: “Fight for the forest. Burn a Brazilian.”

According to Belfort, the Brazilian government is demarcating indigenous areas on the frontier with other South American countries—something he considers extremely dangerous to national security—succumbing to international pressure mainly from the United States and Germany. Americans and Germans, according to Teixeira and other military personnel, are interested in the mineral-rich area’s subsoil.


CocaA sacred plant used as food and folk medicine in the Andes for a variety of purposes including an anesthetic and calcium supplement. Coca (Erythroxylum coca) means simply tree in the Aymara dialect. It was in 1860 that German chemist Carl Köler isolated the cocaine and found its virtues as a local anesthetic. After that, coca and cocaine started to be used for a variety of ailments and were added to several tonics including Coca-Cola.

CurareA poisonous concoction with several plants whose formula was kept a secret for centuries. Alexander von Humboldt was the first European to witness and describe the way the ingredients were put together, in 1800. But curare would start being used as an anesthetic only in 1943, four years after its active ingredient, the d-tubocurarine was isolated.

QuinineUsed as an infusion by the Amazon natives in the treatment of fever. Derived from the cinchona tree (Cinchona officinalis) it was used in the 20s in the US for the treatment of malaria. Known as Indian fever bark the product was used in Europe since the early 1500s. One century later its name had been changed to Jesuit fever bark. The demand for the cinchona almost made it extinct. By smuggling it from South America to Java, in 1865, Englishman Charles Ledger saved the plant. Sixty years later, more than 95% of the world’s quinine was coming from Java.

A Natural First-Aid Kit

Ayahuasca or caapi or santo daime or jagupe (Banisteria caapi)—Stimulant of the senses, with claims to cure cancer. Patented by International Plant Medicine Corporation.Bibiri or beberu (Ocotea radioei)— Used as contraceptive and as a HIV and small tumors inhibitor.

Cabacinha (Luffa operculata)—Mixed with cachaça (sugar-cane hard liquor) it is used against sinusitis and as a nasal decongestant. As an unguent it is applied on tumors.

Erva botão (Eclipta prostata)—An antidote to snake bites.

Erva de jabuti or aperta-ruão (Leandra lacunosa)—Good against diabetes.

Guaraná (Paulinia cupania)— Source of caffeine, it fights fatigue. Used in soft drinks.

Hortelã roxo—Used as solution for ear pain.

Jaborandi (Pilocarpus jaborandi)—Taken as a tea as a diuretic or to induce sweat. Also used in treatment of diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and baldness.

Japana (Eupatoriu ayapana)—Leaves are rubbed on insects bites.

Muirapuama (Ptychopetalum olacoides)- It is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Also used for arthritis and as a stimulant.

Oriza—Tea is taken for heart ailments

Pau d’Arco (Tabebuia impetiginosa) A medicine for candida, athletes foot and also used as a natural anti-biotic. It has also been used against cancer.

Picão (Bidens Pilosa)—For the treatment of malaria and hepatitis

Puxuri or puxiri or pixurim (Licaria Puchurymajor)—A preventive medicine against baby colic.

Quebra-pedra (Parietaria officinalis)—For kidney stones and urinary tract relief. Patented by Fox Medical Center for the treatment of hepatitis B.

Saracura-mirá—A cure-all elixir. Used to treat all kinds of pain and also malaria

Sucuuba (Himathantus Sucuba)—Mosquito repellent. It can be used in candles.

Suma or piriguara or paraguaia (Achietea salutaris)— Called South American Ginseng. Used as tonic and to relieve the symptoms of menopause.

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