Medicines

Human health and well-being has depended upon medicinal and aromatic wild plants for centuries. In fact, the discovery of the secondary medicinal compounds present in plants has had a remarkable impact on human history and our ability to prolong life. But we are so accustomed to taking synthetic medicines from a bottle and packet it has become easy to forgot their natural origin. Furthermore, their availability in industrialised countries has blinded us from the fact that the majority of pharmaceutical drugs are still inaccessible to most of the worlds inhabitants who rely upon the wealth of their natural environment, folk knowledge and local healers to treat their ailments, and the booming trade in medicinal plants to suppliment their livelihoods.

Ayurvedic and Chinese systems of medicine, as well as indigenous shamans and healers, possess a wealth of plant knowledge built up through years of experimentation and trial and error, passed orally from one generation to the next. These systems of medical practice, once considered unscientific and primitive, are now highly valued for their accuracy and the expertise required for their efficacy: the identification of plant species and populations for potency, harvesting techniques and dosage - the border between therapeutic and toxic can be alarmingly fine as is the case with Digitalis sp. the foxglove and Taxus baccata the yew tree, both important medicinal plants and yet extremely poisonous to humans.

Today over one hundred of our prescribed drugs are derived from plants, some of which revolutionised modern medicine: penicillin which came from the Penicillium fungus, morphine from the opium poppy, quinine from cinchona bark, aspirin from willow and reserpine from snakeroot. And yet only an approximate one fifth of flowering plant species have been investigated leaving the prospect for future discoveries high. But despite our present and future reliance upon biodiverse ecosystems and plant populations we are increasingly faced with high levels of extinction due to habitat loss and unsustainable harvesting. What's more, the survival of these plants for medicinal purposes is inextricably linked to the knowledge relating to their management and use and as random selection for testing remains too costly in both time and money, the ability to work with plant experts who already posses knowledge of local flora is increasingly important.

Centuries of knowledge has and will continue to disappear with its custodians if not preserved and nurtured. Following years of bio-prospecting and environmental degradation, greater awareness for the intellectual property rights of indigenous people and global support for non-timber forest products and environmental conservation is much needed.