Messages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize by Michael J. Balick and Rosita Arvigo. New York, NY: Oxford University Press and New York Botanical Garden; 2015. Paperback; 560 pages. ISBN: 978-0-19-996576-2. $49.99.
This is an exquisite book, which reaches back through time and manifests for the modern reader, quite literally, the messages from the gods and goddesses of the Maya people on healing and the useful plants of Belize. It is a magnum opus of the 28-year collaboration of Rosita Arvigo, DN, a highly skilled naprapathic physician with a practice in Belize, Michael Balick, PhD, who is among the world’s most prolific ethnobotanists, and many cherished traditional healers and bushmasters of Belize.
Arvigo and Balick have published numerous articles and several books on their collaborations with healers in Belize, including Rainforest Remedies: One Hundred Healing Herbs of Belize (Lotus Press, 1993, 1998) and Arvigo’s Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer (HarperOne, 1995).
This gift of a book is presented in six chapters and has an unusual format in which the final two chapters are available online only. Chapter 1 provides an introduction and background on the collaboration, including objectives of the work, methodology, and an overview of traditional healers in Belize. The discussion of methodology is concise and will be of great interest to ethnobotanical and ethnomedical researchers and students. It is refreshing to read the underlying philosophy of this research project, as described by the authors: “In this project, the traditional healers and bushmasters are considered to be teachers, colleagues, and friends rather than the traditional ‘informants.’ This is more consistent with the nature of transdisciplinary research, work that … goes beyond the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines.”
Chapter 2 is focused on traditional healers, bushmasters, and their sacred realm. There are discussions of culture-specific illnesses, the conservation of medicinal plants, the process of discovering healing plants, and, among other topics, a wonderful profile of Don Eligio Panti, a world-famous Belizean traditional healer who worked closely with Arvigo and Balick and passed away in 1996 at the age of 103.1 There is a delightful discussion of dream visions as part of the source of healing knowledge, as well as a description from Panti of the nine Maya Spirits and God as his best teachers, particularly when he was faced with difficult patient health challenges. This chapter also mentions that healers in Belize consider information on the treatment of spiritual diseases with certain plants to be sacred or secret knowledge and, as such, that information is not presented in this book.
Chapter 3 is my favorite, as it provides photographs and descriptions of 12 traditional healers that have worked closely with Arvigo and Balick, who passed along their wit and wisdom. It was also a very sad chapter to read, as I did not realize how many of them have passed away, making this book all the more important by paying homage to them and their knowledge. There is also a section in this chapter called “In Their Own Words” in which 35 pages of interviews with the healers are presented. These interviews provide some of the life history of these amazing healers and their worldview.
Chapter 4 provides information, photographs, and uses in ancient and present times of approximately 850 plants species in Belize. It is, as the authors state, an “Ethnobotanical Compendium.” There are beautiful color photographs of the majority of these plants, as well as many color and black-and-white line drawings. Approximately 551 genera are included, which makes this the most comprehensive, yet accessible book ever produced on the useful plants of Belize. The vast majority of species presented have traditional medicinal and food uses, and the entries provide supporting literature citations and voucher specimen numbers for the collections. Common names are presented in English, Spanish, and the Mayan languages Q’eqchi’ and, in many cases, Yucateca. This chapter alone makes this volume an extremely important research tool for anyone working on projects related to the flora and fauna of Belize, including social scientists, environmental organizations, and others. Plus, any of the nearly one million people who visit Belize each year and fall in love with the country, as I did two years ago, may find this information useful.
Chapter 5, which is available online, is titled “Goods from the Woods: The Harvest of Timber and Non-Timber Forest Products [NTFPs] in Belize,” and it is a useful addition to this volume. Balick is a co-author of this chapter along with Robert Heinzman and Conrad Reining. This 29-page chapter presents a wealth of data and detail on NTFP exports from 1922-1989, common names of timber species, and NTFPs in Belize with discussions of the importance of NTFPs in forest reserves. These authors have produced a number of papers on this topic that are thorough and carefully presented in the chapter. I was especially interested in the information on NTFPs chicle (Manilkara zapota, Sapotaceae) and allspice (Pimenta dioica, Myrtaceae), which are important in Belizean commerce.
Chapter 6, a web-based chapter by Gordon M. Cragg, PhD, and David J. Newman, PhD, describes “The U.S. National Cancer Institute’s [NCI’s] Approach to the Discovery and Development of New Drugs for the Treatment of Cancer and AIDS: A Report on Plants Evaluated from Collections in Belize During 1987–1996.” The title suggests that this chapter is focused on plants evaluated from Belize, but the first 10 pages of this 13-page chapter describe the fundamentals of the NCI’s natural products collection and screening program. Since this was an important part of Arvigo and Balick’s research, it is good that it is available to anyone interested in this type of work.
The web-based information also includes Appendix 1, which is the NCI’s official “Letter of Collection” — an “Agreement between source countries and the NCI.” It is not a specific signed letter, but is the now-historic basic letter of agreement signed by the NCI and multiple countries around the world, including, one would assume, Belize. It is helpful that this is included after Chapter 6 to answer the questions that may arise related to access and benefit sharing (ABS) and what sort of agreement was in place with Belize. The NCI was a global pioneer from the government side of creating such agreements, due in large part to the wisdom and great vision of Cragg and his collaborators. Given the ever-increasing importance and focus on ABS, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and, most recently, the Nagoya Protocol, it is excellent that this information is provided as part of this book.
The primary "Material Transfer Agreement" used by the NCI is provided in Appendix 2. It is another document that is a key part of addressing the terms of ABS in place with this project and most NCI biodiversity-based international collaborations.
Finally, Appendix A covers the NCI’s policy on distribution of natural products materials from its repository. This also relates to the NCI-Belize relationship, and it is useful to have all three of these appendices following the overview of the NCI-Belize collaboration.
The book also has a good bibliography and an extensive 35-page index that makes this a very user-friendly volume.
The work of Arvigo and Balick in Belize has set a beautiful precedent for how to create multiple levels of reciprocity and benefit sharing with the healers and people of Belize. That process has been described in publications and has provided direct benefits to healers and communities. Their work in Belize has helped create a renaissance of interest in traditional healing and public health. A brief mention is made in Chapter 3 about the annual bush medicine camp run by Arvigo and Patti Gildea, PhD, that pairs young people with knowledgeable elders who teach them how to appreciate nature and use local plants for food, medicine, and shelter. The authors point out that the fate of the biocultural diversity of Belize is in the hands of the youth. This book is and will be an important part of the future of this knowledge and its transmission in Belize.
This book then pays homage to the messages of the gods. In closing, I would like to honor one healer, Don Eligio Panti, who received his divine inspiration from these messages. Panti alone was responsible for 500 plants in the NCI research program.1 I would also like to pay homage to one specific Maya goddess, Ix Chel, which, as described in the book, translates to “Goddess or Lady Rainbow, who was central to the ancients and their medical system.” It appears that the authors have become conduits for the wisdom of Ix Chel, and they have provided a divine integration of knowledge of the plants, people, healers, and bushmasters of Belize. Great thanks to them for this wonderful contribution and whispers from the gods for us all to see, hear, and feel.
—Steven R. King, PhD
EVP Sustainable Supply,
Ethnobotanical Research and IP
Jaguar Animal Health
San Francisco, California
- Thomas R. Eligio Panti, 103, Maya healer with modern ties. New York Times. February 10, 1996. Available at: www.nytimes.com/1996/02/10/world/eligio-panti-103-maya-healer-with-modern-ties.html. Accessed October 20, 2015.