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Ethnobotany and the Search for New Drugs.
Ciba Foundation Symposium 185 Edited by Derek J. Chadwick and Joan Marsh. John Wiley & Sons, N.Y. 1994. 280pp. Hardcover. $76. ISBN 0-471-95024-6. Available from ABC Books, Item #B095.

The contents of this volume are the proceedings of the symposium on ethnobotany and the search for new drugs held at the Hotel Praia Centro, Fortaleza, Brazil, 30 November - 3 December 1993. Presenters include a who's who list in ethnobotanical research worldwide, including Michael Balick (Ethnobotany, drug developments and biodiversity conservation -- exploring the linkages), Paul Cox (The ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery: strengths and limitations), Norman Farnsworth (Ethnopharmacology and drug development), Walter Lewis and Memory Elvin-Lewis (Basic, quantitative and experimental research phases of future ethnobotany with reference to the medicinal plants of South America), Xavier Lozoya (Two decades of Mexican ethnobotany and research on plant-derived drugs), Richard Evans Schultes (Amazonian ethnobotany and the search for new drugs), Xiao Pei-Gen (Ethnopharmacological investigations of Chinese medicinal plants), S. K. Jain (Ethnobotany and research on medicinal pla nts in India), and many others.

In the search for new drugs, ethnobotany can help in at least three ways. It provides general indications for bioactivity suitable for broad biological screens, can reveal indications of specific activity for conditions of unknown origin, and can provide indications of highly specific activity suitable for targeted biological screens. All of these targets presume that one is searching for a new drug under the Western medical model of discovering a specific compound that can be developed into a proprietary drug for orthodox pharmaceutical markets. However, in societies that do not rely on Western medicine due to cost and other factors, ethnobotany, in the form of traditional medicine, provides primary health care, as is the case in many African countries, Central and South America, India, and China, among the more notable examples.

The presenters at this conference explore a wide range of topics, examining the role of ethnobotany in both modern and traditional societies, and how the two different paradigms can benefit one another using various scientific approaches. The need for accurate ethnomedical information, recording the medical uses, type of preparation, plants used, and expertise of the gatherer of the information are explored, along with differences in approach between disease concepts in Western societies and traditional medicine. The book also explores the issues of intellectual property rights, the application of patent laws, and methods of compensation for holders of the traditional knowledge.

The most striking differences unveiled in this collection of papers are the juxtaposition of collecting ethnobotanical data for new drug development in the West and the integral role of ethnomedicine in cultures in China, India, Africa, Mexico, South and Central America, and elsewhere that choose to rely on medicinal plants and traditional practitioners for primary health care. In this respect, as is the case with many titles in the Ciba Foundation Symposium series, the participants' discussions following each formal presentation are most revealing.

After Dr. Schultes' talk, for example, Dr. Lozoya expressed discontent with Schultes' definition of ethnobotany, encompassing "the study of the uses, technological manipulation, classification, indigenous nomenclature, agricultural systems, magico-religious concepts, conservation techniques and general sociological importance of the flora in primitive or pre-literate societies."

Dr. Lozoya noted, "In Latin America, we have been fighting for 20 years to replace the language that refers to us as primitive societies. Mexican traditional medicine is not primitive."

Dr. Jain asserted that "...a direct relationship between plants and human societies is ethnobotany,"

Whether plant use is the result of direct interaction of humans or plants, or several steps removed, all who are interested in medicinal plant research and the role of ethnobotany, including biologists, ecologists, botanists, medicinal and pharmaceutical chemists, pharmacist, physicians, and generalists, will find this enlightening volume a welcome addition to their libraries. Students interested in enrolling in ethnobotanical programs should be required to read this book before making a decision. All the multifaceted pieces that make up an understanding of ethnobotany are included this book. This is an important read for anyone interested in the direction of medicinal plant research and utilization.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Steven Foster