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BRIT Hosts Pacific and Neotropical Ethnobotany Lecture Series
BRIT Hosts Pacific and Neotropical Ethnobotany Lecture Series

The Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) is hosting a Distinguished Lecturer Series on “Medicinal Plant Use by Pacific and Neotropical Peoples.” The series features expert speakers with diverse backgrounds lecturing on numerous aspects of ethnobotany. The first three lectures of the series were held in autumn of 2004 at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden in Fort Worth, Texas. The four lectures scheduled for spring 2005 will be held at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden.

The first 2004 lecture was titled, “Nature’s Pharmacy: Exploration of the World’s Rain Forests, Coral Reefs, and Extreme Environments for New Medicines Highlights the Urgent Need to Preserve Our Global Genetic Patrimony.” The speaker, Gordon M. Cragg, PhD, Natural Products Branch Chief at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), focused on the importance of preserving global biodiversity. Dr. Cragg expressed a fondness for microorganisms and their roles in sustaining ecosystems and their potential use as sources of novel medicines. NCI has explored the world in search of medicines in virtually every ecosystem, including overlooked areas with potential for biodiversity and medicine discovery. Touching upon the issue of cultural compensation, Dr. Cragg emphasized the need for collaboration and equitable benefit-sharing between the companies that develop the pharmaceuticals and the indigenous communities whose natural environments constitute the source of the raw materials. One possible benefit would be the provision of developed pharmaceuticals to indigenous people at no cost.

Will McClatchey, PhD, ethnobotanist and professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, gave the second 2004 lecture, “Roles of Healers, Plants, and Ethnopharmacology in Old Hawaii.” With a distinctive anthropological approach, Dr. McClatchey spoke about the defining traditions of indigenous people in the western Pacific oceanic region and their (mostly) plant-based materia medica. He also discussed issues that affect these Pacific cultures and the threat to indigenous ethnobotanical knowledge. Beginning with historical developments, Dr. McClatchey described the Polynesian cultural framework built by the traditional healers who used local plant remedies to treat illnesses. McClatchey pointed out the loss of traditional knowledge and the need for integrating modern and traditional medicine. Using an image of the sun halfway at the horizon, McClatchey asked the audience to ponder on whether the sun was rising or setting, and whether each representation signifies the end of the traditional healing era or the beginning.

The third 2004 lecture concerned “The Status of our Knowledge of Traditional Plant Use in the Forest Paradise of Papua New Guinea, the Land of the Unexpected.” Teatulohi Matainaho, PhD, head of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Papua New Guinea, presented an overview of the island’s culture and biodiversity, including its economic, ecological, and political struggles, as well as possible solutions. Dr. Matainaho discussed several threats to the ecosystems, including natural gas and mineral extraction, which is partly a result of subsidized economic development by the government. He also stressed the need for additional conservation strategies, an inventory of biodiversity, documentation of traditional medicinal knowledge, and screening plant extracts for potential treatment of HIV, tuberculosis, cancer, and other medical uses. The ultimate goal Matainaho hopes for is national economic development with a conservation-based industry policy.

Slated for 2005 in Fort Worth are four additional lectures: (1) Paul Alan Cox, PhD, Executive Director, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai, Hawaii, speaking on Ethnobotanical Insights into Neurological Disease; (2) Glenn Wightman, PhD, Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, Australia, speaking on The Use of Plants for Medicine in the Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Traditional Medicinal Plant Use; (3) Michael Balick, PhD, Head of the Institute of Economic Botany, The New York Botanical Garden, speaking on Exploring Ancient Wisdom and Traditional Healing in Micronesia; and (4) Brent Berlin, PhD, Department of Anthropology, The University of Georgia, speaking on Use of Medicinal Plants Among the Maya in the Chiapas Highlands.

For more information on the lecture series, see the BRIT Web site at The American Botanical Council and the Academy of Oriental Medicine in Austin, Texas, also provided support for the series.