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The New Ethnobotany: Sharing With Those Who Shared; An Interview With Michael Balick and Rosita Arvigo.

HerbalGram's Managing Editor, Barbara Johnston, recently interviewed Drs. Michael Balick and Rosita Arvigo about their ethnobotanical studies in Belize, specifically about their book, Rainforest Remedies: One Hundred Healing Herbs of Belize, and the program they have developed for supporting traditional healers from the proceeds of their book.

HG: What does the work of the ethnobotanist, who studies the relationship between people and plants, involve?

Balick/Arvigo: In the past, ethnobotany frequently focused on exploration -- a scientist paddled up a remote river to visit a tribe, and gathered information on plants that the people said they used. Today, there is much more of a mutual exchange between the ethnobotanist and their indigenous teachers and more often the work is with people who have been exposed to outside civilization, to varying degrees. Both partners need to receive something substantial out of the research that is being carried out. So, the dynamic of the interchange is much more balanced than ever before. When we began the Belize Ethnobotany Project in 1986, we really committed to developing a project that would give back as much or more than we would receive in exchange, and help strengthen the community of traditional healers in Belize, as well as help the individual healers and bushmasters (persons quite knowledgeable about the rainforest) that we worked with achieve their own goals. And rather than decid ing on their behalf what would help bolster their profession and help them individually, we asked them to help us develop some of the objectives of this project. We also were completely open in informing them of the implications of this work, e.g., what would happen to the information and materials that would be collected during this project.

HG: You work from the bottom up rather than developing your program from the top down?

B/A: We met a number of traditional healers and learned that there was a common theme in many of their requests -- to produce a book that could be used by them for teaching their children and also serve as a reference that would in some way help support the validity of traditional healing and help reestablish its importance in the contemporary world. There had not yet been a definitive book done on the medicinal plants of Belize detailing uses, common names, Latin names, research results and illustrations. A well produced record of their home remedies as recorded by ten traditional healers seemed a good contribution to make to the development of this nation.

HG: But the outside world, the "modern" world, how was traditional healing viewed by that group of people?

B/A: Many in local communities in Central America and elsewhere are not convinced that this ancient healing art has a place in contemporary society. Therefore, our commitment to the healers was to produce a simple, inexpensive, carefully written book with information on the use of plants in the context of the local beliefs, but also containing clinical information, where available, on the efficacy of the plants. In this way, we hoped to establish greater understanding of the work and importance of the traditional healers of Belize.

HG: How did you go about producing the book they wanted?

B/A: In 1987, we began to gather information from 10 traditional healers who chose to work with us during the early years of the project. These included: Dona Juana Cuc and Sr. Antonio Cuc of San Antonio, Cayo, patriarchs who have cared for many generations using traditional plant remedies; Miss Barbara Fernandez of Belize City, who has an herb shop in the Belize City market that is well known and respected throughout the country and who has authored Medicine Woman: The Herbal Tradition of Belize, a book on medicinal herbs; Mr. Thomas Green, of the Cayo District, who learned his trade in the chicle, rubber, and mahogany camps, and is an accomplished canoe craftsman as well; Mr. Winston Harris, of Cristo Rey, Cayo District, known as a master of jungle survival (bushmaster), as well as a snake bite healer; Don Eligio Panti, originally from the Peten of Guatemala, former resident of San Antonio, Cayo District, now deceased but who was the most famous of all traditional healers in B elize; Mr. Andrew Ramcharan, Ranchito, Corozal District, known as the most accomplished snake bite healer in all of the north of Belize, a crucial skill in all area covered with sugarcane fields that harbor many snakes; Miss Hortense Robinson, of Ladyville, Belize District, who has been a midwife for over 50 years, and works as a general practitioner specializing in ailments of women and children; Mr. Polo Romero, an accomplished snake doctor and bushmaster who learned his craft while working in rubber, mahogany, and chicle camps; and Dona Juana Xix, of Sukkotz Village, Cayo District, who is a primary health care specialist and midwife to residents of many of the surrounding villages.

We also worked with a very talented artist, Laura Evans, who drew black and white illustrations for the book. One of our colleagues, Norman Farnsworth, provided us with information from the NAPRALERT data base which helped us track down clinical information that might be available for the book. Jim Duke provided us with information on chemical composition of the plants from his data base. In addition, we searched The New York Botanical Garden Library and other sources of information on traditional clinical uses of some of these plants, such as from other cultures, and this was all included in the book. We then approached Mark Blumenthal for advice on how best to get the healers' message out to an audience that went beyond the Belizean community. Mark introduced us to our publisher, Santosh Krinsky, of Lotus Press and he became very excited about this effort and agreed to publish Rainforest Remedies: One Hundred Healing Herbs of Belize, and help support our work through its publi cation.

HG: The people that you wrote the book for -- the healers and their students and patients, as well as other people in Belize -- are they using this book?

B/A: Belize is a country of high literacy. It is also a country where English is the primary language, as a former English colony. We decided to make the first publication in English. We have had numerous requests for a Spanish version from traditional healers and primary health care providers from many Central American countries, and we are in the process of translating it and are looking for a publisher for that version. The book is to be found in many households -- we were delighted to find that it is so widely used by local people in Belize. Interestingly enough, both German and Dutch publishers picked up the book and it has been translated into these two languages. We also hope it will be published in Spanish.

HG: What is the crossover of this book with other regions in Central America?

B/A: That is an interesting question. We found that many of the plants used in traditional healing in Belize are also found in areas such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. What is fascinating is the cross-cultural comparisons of the uses of plants in traditional healing in other countries both in tile region and elsewhere. For example, working with one of the healers, Mr. Andrew Ramcharan, who is of East Indian descent, we found that a number of the plants that he uses are also used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India. So, a significant percentage of these plants can be found used elsewhere around the world, thus helping to show their efficacy.

Dr. Jim Duke found that a vine used for birth control in Belize was used for the same purpose with the exact same dosage in Peru. A good 25 percent of the plants in Rainforest Remedies can be found throughout the Americas -- such as roses, lemon grass, ginger, banana, mango, avocado, and many more. So, this makes it a very useful book for people in many different countries and cultures. Americans who study herbs have been fascinated to find some very uncommon uses and names for their own common plants. For instance, the red hibiscus, (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L., Malvaceae) is thought of mostly as a decorative plant wherever it grows in gardens or pots. Few are aware of its use in traditional healing to staunch the flow of post partum hemorrhage, to heal skin conditions, and its fame as a food to replace iron in the blood.

HG: If the reader wants to delve more deeply into the lives of some of the traditional healers that have provided information in this book, is there a reference that they can go to?

B/A: Yes, Rosita Arvigo recently published the story of her apprenticeship with one of the most distinguished of the healers we have worked with, Don Eligio Panti. Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer, is available through the ABC Catalog (#B087. $14.00) Also in the ABC Catalog is Plants, People and Culture: the Science of Ethnobotany (#B 196, $32.95), co-authored by Michael Balick and Paul Alan Cox. The book includes much additional information on traditional healing and ethnobotany.p#

HG: How did you actually publish and distribute Rainforest Remedies?

B/A: Basically, we took loans secured by our homes to pay for its publication. This might seem a bit risky, but we had a reason -- to use our own funds rather than go to a foundation or other source. in order to have more say in how the book royalties are distributed. As a result, a significant percentage of the royalties derived from this book have gone directly to a fund to support the traditional healers who so graciously collaborated with us in Belize. They did not ask us for this kind of long-term financial support at the beginning of the project, but this is one of the aspects of the "new ethnobotany" where traditional peoples receive benefits from the work as well -- after all, it is their information. Benefits should be afforded one's collaborators at several levels. In this project, there are immediate benefits, including job creation, development of a community of healers, educational opportunities, travel and attendance at symposia, to name a few.

Benefits at the second level of benefits are mid-term, such as the traditional healers fund that is supported by royalties from the book. By early 1998, $16,754 had been raised for these 10 people who used the money in various ways (see box). We have structured the royalty payments as follows: 15 percent of sales in Belize -- not profits -- go to the healers fund. This is an important distinction. Each of the healers has been assigned a certain number of shares -- one, two, or three shares, depending on how much time, effort and knowledge they contributed to the project. From books sold in the U.S. at our lectures, 10 percent of sales goes to the healers fund. Lotus Light, the publisher, has pledged 10 a video, Diary of a Belizean Girl: Learning Herbal Wisdom from our Elders, used in many schools in Belize to teach the importance of traditional knowledge; and within a year, a checklist of the vascular plants of Belize with annotations on their common names and uses will be published by The New York Botanical Garden, co-authored by Michael Balick, Michael Nee, and Daniel Atha. A major resource to appear from this project will be the book that we are now working on, Messages from the Gods: The Ethnobotanical Wealth of Belize. In this publication, we expect to have an encyclopedic treatment of some 850 plants and their uses in traditional practices in Belize, as well as a dozen or so chapters on the relationships between plants and people. Of course there are many thousands of herbarium vouchers, on which the information can be verified, and a computer data base that resulted from this work. Through other funding sources, The New York Botanical Garden was able to donate $14,000 worth of her barium cases to herbaria in Belize that desperately needed state of the art curatorial facilities for the plants we collected, as well as a computer system donated to the Belize Center for Environmental Studies to serve as one of the local repositories of data for the collections and checklist of the flora.

HG: Who has supported your work in Belize?

B/A: The Belize Ethnobotany Project has been an endeavor bringing together a coalition of people and funders who believe in the idea that grass roots efforts aimed at reviving traditional healing are crucial priorities. We have had a constituency ranging from the Rex Foundation (formed by members of the Grateful Dead), The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Edward John Noble Foundation, The Gildea Foundation, The Overbrook Foundation, The Philecology Trust, The John and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to The U.S. Agency for International Development, The National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute, and The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, as well as many other groups and individuals. These institutions all came together to fund this project in pursuit of a higher level of knowledge about the relationship between plants and people and the potential use of plants as new therapies for diseases such as AIDS and cancer.

HG: Would you consider this work a model for other ethnobotanical projects elsewhere?

B/A: There is something to be learned from any endeavor -- what we have tried to do is create a project based on sharing of both scientific knowledge and financial resources. In talking to many of our colleagues elsewhere, we are gratified that there is increased understanding of the need to give back more than is asked for in return. We are delighted to see greater numbers of projects becoming involved in organizing opportunities for traditional peoples to have a stronger hand in conservation of both their traditions and biodiversity. Perhaps that philosophy can serve as a model for other projects. We have also learned a great deal from our colleagues as well as our critics, and our ideas and activities have grown as a result of the project.

If you wish to lend your support to the traditional healers mentioned in this article you can do so by sending your contributions to: Traditional Healers Foundation, Ix Chel Farm, San Ignacio, Cayo District. Belize, Central America. (Certified mail suggested.) Article copyright American Botanical Council.

~~~~~~~~ By Barbara Johnston