Ethnobotany at our Community Center

Ethnobotany at our Community Center

When we speak about the medicinal garden currently being built on the grounds adjacent to the C. C., the term ‘ethnobotany’ is frequently used to describe this latest project funded by the LAT community through our Non Profit.​

It was recently – and correctly – brought to our attention that the nonprofit committee should provide an informative and, hopefully not too boring (even witty?), discussion on what ethnobotany is all about, how it relates to our medicinal garden and how all this supports our mandate and LAT’s ecology-focused distinctiveness.

Let’s start at the beginning.  The actual term “ethnobotany” was first used in 1895 by the US botanist John William Harshberger.  But the field has a much, much longer history that takes us back across many millennia. 

In the strict sense of the word, ethnobotany is a subfield of botany – the scientific study of plants – that focuses on examining how different people use local plants to make different things, such as food, shelter, clothing and, important for our project, also medicines. In addition, ethnobotany also explores the role of plays in cultural and religious rituals. 

As far as the use of plants for medicinal purposes goes, ethnobotanists’ interests can range from highly scientific pharmacological research to purely historical and anthropological studies.  For scientists, the distinctive ways different people use plants for specific health reasonscan not only yield life-saving information, but also provide a window into their cultureand a way to examine and interpret it.  

Quinine, for example, an alkaloid (naturally occurring molecules composed of nitrogen and carbon) from the bark of cinchona has been used for thousands of years and saved hundreds of millions of lives that otherwise would have been lost to malaria.  Our ritual morning cup of coffee would not deliver its kick were it not for the alkaloid caffeine, nor would the cigarette manufactures do so well without the alkaloid nicotine.  What would the sixties have been without the mental pyrotechnics of mescalineor psilocybin, both noble alkaloids!  THC, although not an alkaloid, has a long been in use as a stimulant in religious/cultural rituals and it now finding its way into conventional medicine.

Indeed, around one quarter of all prescription drugs currently sold in the US have plant chemicals as active ingredients.  Remarkably, merely 95 different plant species are being used for the approximately120 plant-based prescription drugs available today.  This stands in remarkable contrast to the fact that out the 250,000 species only about 5,000 have been specifically examined for their therapeutic potential.  

Statistical probability tells us that there is no lack of ‘miracle drugs’ waiting to be discovered among the remaining 98%, – around 247,500 plant types – that have not been scrutinized as yet.

However, the economics of the international pharmaceutical market favor manufactured active ingredients in medications over plant-derived ones. Often, the alkaloids, the active ingredients, exist in such tiny amounts in individual plants that harvesting and commercializing them makes no financial sense. Moreover, the fickleness of Mother Nature undermines reliable supply.  Floods, draughts and storms can wreak havoc on local resources.  Nevertheless, the market for medicines resulting from plants exceeds $10 billion a yearin the US alone.

As a side note, neighboring Cuba, due to the island’s economic isolation and the extremely low average income of its population, has had to rely for decades on local medicinal plants for many of its basic medications.  Entering a pharmacy in old Havana is a fascinating trip back to a different era.  Polished mahogany shelves divided into narrow rectangular spaces cover the walls from floor to ceiling, each one occupied by a single ornate porcelain jar containing some type of local plant-derived remedy that adds to the room’s intoxicating blend of exotic fragrances – a far cry from the uber-sterile appearance of modern pharmacies.    

Now what all this has to do with the medicinal garden at the CC? 

In their work to identify and categorize plants on the basis of their medicinal application, ethnobotanists rely on local knowledge as their primary source.  In his wonderful book, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, Dr. Mark Plotkin, one of today’s leading ethnobotanists, tells the story of his adventurous journey through the Brazilian rain forest to learn from local healers and shamans about the curative benefits of the plants that naturally grow in the surrounding jungle.

Dr. Plotkin’s account also describes the many hazards this ancient knowledge faces.  From massive deforestation to the competition from conveniently available pharmacological products, this tradition is under threat.  Its practitioners are declining in numbers, and there are fewer and fewer to whom to pass on their experience and take their place. Knowledge that has served mankind for untold millennia is becoming extinct right before our eyes.

The greatest blessing of Los Arboles is our jungle.  Not only is it home to countless creatures, some so weird as to defy imagination.  But our jungle is also a vast apothecary of medicinal plants.  For its inventory of such flora, Nature favors, for some reason, tropical and semi-tropical environments over temperate climates. Familiarity with these plants and their different usages has been part of the local Mayan culture even before it historically emerged as a civilization.

This locally distinct information about which particular plants that typically grow in our surrounding jungle have specified medicinal applications is under similar threat as that of the healers and shamans of the Brazilian rainforest.  

Our medicinal plants garden is our community’s contribution to the preservation and, hopefully, promotion of this traditional knowledge.  It will feature a selection of the most commonly used plants and explain how each one is prepared for medicinal use.  One area is set aside for a nursery to be able to replace plants eaten by bugs, slugs, ants, and who knows what else – including us. Moreover, Cecilia, our biologist, comes from a small pueblo where plant-based medications are still used, and we plan to showcase some of the traditional remedies

We are also introducing Los Arboles to certain university departments as a location for focused ethnobotanical research.  Already, next summer, a student from Tulane University, New Orleans, is planning a grant-supported research stay here.  As our monkey and recent drone projects show, we are an ideal place for certain types of research.  And the visiting scientists and students absolutely love it!  Our houses are a far cry from the bugs and snakes infested research camps that are commonly made available to intrepid explorers. We offer shady pools, lofty terraces with  breezy hammocks and really, really hospitable people. 

We are not alone in our endeavors. There are already a number of individuals in the area who have cultivated an understanding of local plant use, teach about it and promote it.  Once our garden is fully built, we want to engage with these individuals and explore how we can collaborate in the preservation and promotion of this ancient body of knowledge     

When the Non Profit Committee initially discussed this endeavor, we were looking for a meaningful and doable project that could be situated within our community.  Over the past 4 years, our community has supported a variety of different endeavors.  But all of them are located somewhere else, in Tulum or Macario Gomez.        

This garden provides LAT with the opportunity to engage actively in the preservationof important ethnobotanic traditions and cultural knowledge of our region.  And, in addition, it offered to do this on the grounds of our community and thereby enrich the space we all share.  

As always, please write to us if you have any questionsregarding this project or any other activities of the LAT nonprofit committee.

With best regards,

The LAT nonprofit committee​

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