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  Today Online 28 Apr 06
The forest is a pharmacy and more

A Western scientist gains a wealth of knowledge from indigenous peoples
Coffee with Dr Paul Cox Ethnobotanist

HE lived with native healers in Samoa and other parts of the world for more than 30 years to learn the therapeutic benefits of native plants used by indigenous tribes. One discovery led to Prostratin, an anti-Aids drug.

But ethnobotanists such as Dr Paul Cox, who study the relationship between people and plants, are a rare breed--there are only about 30 of them in the world.

Melody Koh learns more from Time's 1997 "Hero of Medicine".

What triggered your interest in ethnobotany?

When I was at Harvard University, where I did my PhD, there was a very famous ethnobotanist named Richard Evans Schultes. When he discovered I had some linguistic ability, he encouraged me to study ethnobotany. After my mother died of cancer in 1984, I became even more interested in looking for new cures in medicine.

How has research on plants contributed to the medical field?

I found a plant in Samoa that the indigenous people say can be used against hepatitis. The Samoans call the plant mamala, and when I took samples of this back to the United States National Cancer Institute, we found it was highly active against the Aids virus. This went into the discovery of Prostratin.

Any communication problems with the indigenous people?

I took the time to learn their language, which usually takes three to six months. We would rather conduct our interviews in a foreign language, even though we're not proficient, than use a translator because translators filter out too much biological information. The indigenous people and us both understand the plants, so once we establish trust and rapport, we're able to learn a lot from one another.

How have you been able to help the indigenous people you work with?

I've been in Samoa for more than 25 years. What I'm really excited about now is training young Samoans to be ethnobotanists. My big interest has always been in finding new ways to return the benefits to them. In the case of Prostratin, we negotiated a deal between the Aids research alliance and the Samoan people. So 20 per cent of the royalties went back to Samoa, 12.5 per cent to the Samoan government and 6.7 per cent to the village that helped with the work.

This is also true for my work with cosmetics. I wrote a paper about the cosmetic use of plants, because I noticed how beautiful the hands and skin of the village women were. Suddenly, the top cosmetics firms were interviewing me. But none was willing to send money to help the people, except Nu Skin Corporation. They agreed to send US 25 (40) to a special fund every time an Epoch product was sold. So far, that fund has generated US$13 million.

You must be welcomed in all the countries you've done research in?

Absolutely. I have very fond memories of all the countries I've been to. The Hollywood portrayal of indigenous people--the mouth behind the blow gun, raiders of the lost ark--simply isn't true. In my experience, indigenous people are kind and if you show respect and are humble, they'll respond.

You should have a pure heart when you do this work. Believe that the indigenous people can read your thoughts. If you go in and you think that they're violent and bad people, they'll sense it. But if you respect their culture and want to learn, they'll also pick up on that. I'm very keen on protecting indigenous culture because they're disappearing very quickly. Western culture tends to erode all these traditions.

I spend a lot of time sitting with the people, listening to what they have to teach me. One village said they were losing their traditional culture of theatre. And we built an outdoor amphitheatre for them so eco-tourists could come and experience their culture.

What of the impact of deforestation?

I'm deeply concerned. The indigenous people suffer a great deal because where we see a forest, they see their pharmacy. They see the cosmetics store, they see the grocery store, they see their temple. You must be proud of your work. I'm very proud but also very humbled because it's not my knowledge--it's the indigenous people's.

That's a very important distinction to make because, like in the case of the drug Prostratin, I don't want to say that I invented it. It was the knowledge that was held by the indigenous people and it's important that we return to them the benefits we attain.

Are you concerned that a lot of this knowledge is dying every day?

So many young people today just want to wear Levi's and drink Coke. They don't want to listen to Grandma talk about plants. My hope is that it's turning around now. There are some countries such as Mexico, Nigeria and Thailand, which are seeing ethnobotany as part of their cultural heritage.

There are some great programmes educating people on how to use plants. A sort of jellyfish stings the fishermen in Thailand, and they crush leaves into their feet which stops the pain. Pharmaceutical companies weren't interested in the molecule responsible because it works exactly like ibuprofen, but now you can go almost anywhere in Thailand and you buy that leaf for just 25 baht ($1).

There's so much knowledge out there that can help people's lives and it doesn't cost anything.

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