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Book Review


The Ethnobotany of Eden: Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative by Robert A. Voeks. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; 2018. Hardcover, 328 pages. ISBN: 9780226547718. $45.00.

This is a remarkable book that I found engaging and fascinating. It is, in many ways, a tour de force. The Ethnobotany of Eden explores the history of medicine, voyages of discovery, and the evolution of natural products-derived medicine. It is also a tribute to female healers, a reminder of the horrors of the rubber boom, a psychological evaluation of early explorers of the “New World” and their patrons, and a sweeping global analysis of how people manage, use, and disperse knowledge about plant medicines and food. That may seem to be a lot to cover in a book of 328 pages. In fact, these topics account for only a portion of the rich narrative contained within this book.

The author, Robert Voeks, PhD, is a highly respected investigator, scholar, professor, and geographer. He has conducted field research in Brazil, northern Borneo, and Mozambique, and has been the editor of the journal Economic Botany for the past eight years. He uses his experience to present an amazing diversity of research findings in this book. In fact, there are 41 pages of references and citations from at least 17 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. There are also 50 historic plates and black-and-white photographs. I love the cover, which is Henri Rousseau’s painting Le Rêve (“The Dream”).

The book is divided into nine chapters and begins with “God’s Medicine Chest,” which sets the theme for much of the book. There is a clear focus on the concept of the “Garden of Eden,” which has captured the imagination of explorers, their benefactors, and the general public as a living paradise awaiting discovery. This paradise, Voeks writes, would include healing plants from “God’s own medicine chest.” The reader is reminded of the many drugs that have been developed based on traditional medicine research, including the antimalarial compound artemisinin (from Artemisia annua, Asteraceae) for which half of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Tu Youyou.

There is also a brief focus on bioprospecting and the environmental rationale of saving rainforests for future miracle cures, and a brief mention of biopiracy. In this chapter, the following statement is made: “In the end, however, … this compelling story helped spread the gospel of save the rainforest, [but] ... no lifesaving drugs were developed, no diseases were cured, no fortunes were made and no tropical rainforests were saved.” This theme, occasionally repeated elsewhere, is incorrect and must be challenged with more factual information. For example, in December 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved crofelemer (sold under the trade name Mytesi; Napo Pharmaceuticals; San Francisco, California) — the first oral botanical drug ever approved under the FDA’s Botanical Drug Guidelines — for the treatment of HIV-related diarrhea. Crofelemer was discovered and developed initially by Shaman Pharmaceuticals using an ethnobotanical and ethnomedical drug-discovery methodology and was derived from the Amazonian rainforest plant Croton lechleri (Euphorbiaceae) during a 25-year research and development program. In addition, Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany (WH Freeman & Co.; 1996) by Paul Cox, PhD, and Michael Balick, PhD, provides examples of 50 pharmaceutical drugs that have been developed in the last 75 years, some of which are based on medicinal or toxic plants from the rainforest. The $8-billion market for botanical dietary supplements in the United States also includes numerous products based on rainforest or other tropical species that play a significant role in human health. Another missing element is an elaboration of the conservation projects funded by drug-discovery programs that have been started and maintained in numerous tropical nations and communities specifically to conserve both the tropical forest ecosystems and the plant medicines contained within them for the benefit of local communities.

I found the chapters “Weeds in the Garden” and “Gender and Healing” particularly inspiring because the author focuses on the large number of plant medicines that are found in secondary forests and, literally, as weeds in gardens. These weeds represent “disturbance pharmacopeias,” as the author describes them, and these plants often contain chemical compounds that help them resist insects, birds, small mammals, and other plants that seek to compete for light, nutrients, and space. In the chapter “Gender and Healing,” Voeks elegantly pays homage to the extremely important roles of female healers, or “master herbalists,” in many cultures, who often have discovered and used plant medicines with greater frequency and depth of knowledge than their male counterparts. This also helps correct a common misconception that traditional medicine is and has been the domain of male healers.

The world’s fascination with traditional medicine and knowledge from tropical rainforests has never been stronger. There is a growing global focus, for example, on the rainforest species ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae) and its admixtures, which are discussed in the book. That, combined with the global interest in plant medicines as a component of integrative medical practices and primary health care, particularly in underserved areas, suggests that there is much more to be discovered, developed, collected, cultivated, and appreciated from tropical forests.

This book will be useful in the classroom as an important reference and enjoyed by scholars from a broad diversity of disciplines. While there are other books that consider some of the themes presented in this remarkable scholarly work, I have never encountered such a detailed and rich synthesis of so many fields of interrelated knowledge.

—Steven R. King, PhD
Executive Vice President of Sustainable Supply,
Ethnobotanical Research, & Intellectual Property
Jaguar Health
San Francisco, California