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Who Owns the Healing Secrets of Plants?

As the Haida know, the rainforest can yield cures for sickness. But sharing such knowledge may create other ills.

Heather Ramsay 20 Jan
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In the meadows and thickets of the forest grows a plant with broad, deep green, accordion-pleated leaves called false hellebore.

I'd been told the highly poisonous meadow lily, also known as Indian hellebore, is used as a medicine by First Nations people. Curious, I dove into the pages of Nancy Turner's new book.

The renowned ethnobotanist and professor at the University of Victoria, has written Plants of Haida Gwaii, a stunning book bursting with information about how the Haida use more than 150 local plant species. Within its photo-filled pages is a first person account of gathering and preparing spruce roots, a description of preserving wild crab apples in water-filled cedar boxes and a passage delving into the mysterious origin of Haida tobacco.

The book, 30 years in the making, documents Massett and Skidegate names for each plant and was produced in collaboration with elders and the Council of the Haida Nation. But sometimes what has been left out of a book holds as much intrigue as that which is contained within.

Flipping to the page describing gwaayk'ya, false hellebore or Skookum-root, as it is variously known, I found the following:

"The Haida have had many different uses for it, but these are considered to be private knowledge and because of this, and the danger of misuse, uninformed people should keep away from this and other medicinal plants."

The pursuit of knowledge is much lauded in the European and Western worlds. I was born into this knowledge set and, at times, I've been suspicious of this need to know - a fundamental cornerstone of my culture. And every so often I'm broadsided by my own cultural baggage.

I thought my question about hellebore was simple. The answer can be found in other common field guides and I was puzzled by the omission and to some extent I still am. Why don't the Haida want to share this information?

'What have we got left?'

I went to see Barb Wilson, K'ii7lljuus, who says she became inspired to delve deeper into the world of plants after seeing Turner give a presentation more than 14 years ago.

"It's because in the past everything has been taken from us. How can you ask us to give you more when you have taken our children, our culture, our land, our ocean, our trees? What have we got left?"

For Wilson, who has been documenting and passing on knowledge of traditional plants for years, the question of why information has been kept out of the book is not a simple matter. Turner has also struggled with it. Her original version of the text contained all the information she had been told.

In 1970, as a young graduate student, she'd been welcomed by elders like, Florence Davidson, Emma and Willie Matthews and George Young, who had openly shared with her their knowledge of plants. Turner spent three summers on the Islands collecting plants, bringing them to the elders and documenting their names in the Haida dialects. With their permission, she recorded hours of stories, memories and recipes for the uses of these plants.

Wilson says Turner came to Haida Gwaii at a critical time when many of the elders were afraid this information was going to be lost forever.

"You can see how that could happen. The norm of using medicinal plants was coming into the twilight because we are told medicine that comes from a doctor is better - that we are foolish to believe in our plants," she says.

Today, many of the elders Turner spoke with have passed away, but the details they shared are recorded and some of it is not available to the public. The information is protected for a number of reasons. It was the elders and medicinal plants specialists who were consulted about the book that decided the type and level of information to be protected.

Knowledge about medicinal plants is very private, says Wilson. Certain families own the recipes for medicines capable of curing ailments ranging from colds, influenza, ulcers, infections, arthritis and some types of cancer. The exact ingredients are well-kept secrets.

'Plants are for healing'

Guujaaw, President, Council of the Haida Nation and a medicinal plant specialist, says it is incorrect to suggest the Haida are not willing to share their knowledge.

"Any person who makes medicine, makes it without calls for remuneration and is obligated because of the virtue of holding that knowledge, to make medicine for anyone asking."

There are many ways of showing respect and compensating people who make the herbal drinks, poultices or drops that people use. But not everyone has the intimate knowledge necessary to make the medicines, nor should they.

"Plants are for healing not for profit," Wilson says. "I don't ask how it is made. I know it works and I compensate them because they share their knowledge with me."

As Turner points out in her book, "It is impossible to separate the concepts of healing from the concepts of spirituality and the power invested in natural things within the Haida culture."

The essential importance of plants to the culture raises another of the reasons elders decided to keep things out of the book.

It is a conservation issue, says Turner. "If a plant gets known as a really valuable medicine and people don't respect the property rights of others, they will go and harvest it without proper respect for the plant or the environment," she says. This has happened with golden seal, Echinacea, American ginseng and the Pacific yew to name a few.


Vandana Shiva, one of India's most prominent activists, uses the term biopiracy. The concern, being debated on world stages, like the World Trade Organization and the UN Convention for Biodiversity, is over western corporations and scientists claims to have invented genetic or molecular structures of certain organisms, many that have been known and used by indigenous people for centuries. In India, plants known to have healing properties, such as the neem tree, tumeric, and basmati rice, have undergone drawn out legal battles over patenting issues.

"[Companies] put research into [a plant] and then they think they are entitled to exclusive rights to sell it. But it gets to be ludicrous when the end result of a patent is local people who have used a medicine or some other plant for thousands of years don't have the right to give seeds away to their relatives or sell it themselves without paying a royalty to some foreign entity," says Turner.

A report released at the 2004 United Nations Convention for Biodiversity in Kuala Lumpur, studied 762 randomly selected American patents related to medicinal plants. Forty-nine per cent were based on traditional knowledge, noted the report by the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies based in Tokyo. Brendan Tobin, author of the report, notes there is no international system to protect the rights of the indigenous communities that provided the information in the first place.

Well-known ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, who has spent time with and published books on the Penan of Borneo and the voodoo culture of Haiti, among others, agrees intellectual property has become a very sensitive issue over the past 20 years. This is in part due to the revelations by ethnobotanists, such as himself, about the pharmacological potential of the world's rainforests.

Around the same time he was a young botanist exploring the Amazon, environmentalists began to realize their efforts to protect the rainforest for its intrinsic value were not enough. They needed an economic argument and saving "the world's natural pharmacy" became a popular catch phrase, he says to help contextualize the issue. Drugs like quinine from cinchona bark found in the Andean Mountains, used as a treatment for malaria, became the poster child.

"The idea there were shaman squirreled away in some remote village that had in their repertoire the cure for AIDS caught the public's imagination, but was not necessarily true."

Davis says this kind of romantic notion carries a fundamental misreading of shamanic healing, where the essential tenet is that disease happens when the body is in a state of imbalance. To redress that imbalance, shaman work on two levels, one being the treatment of symptoms with plants, but it is the second level where the power lies.

"The real art of a shaman is to elevate his or her spirit to get into these distant metaphysical realms where he or she can work their deeds of medical, mystical, magical rescue."

Most plants with pharmacological value, he adds, are known to the world, and have been known for centuries, because they have been traded and used since first contact with indigenous cultures.

'Who owns intellectual property?'

In the heat of the excitement over the rainforest pharmacy, at least one company, Shaman Pharmaceutical, raised $170 million in venture capital to seek new drugs from shaman. With the average drug development cost ringing in at half a billion, Davis says, the company couldn't produce a product and went belly up. During this time, a whole group of well-intentioned people began to propagate the notion that intellectual property was under threat. 

"All the talk of protecting intellectual property and paying royalties was based on the assumption that new drugs were hitting the market and making someone a bunch of money. But few new drugs were in fact hitting the market," Davis says.

Taxol, isolated from the Pacific yew in the 1960s and now used for the treatment of ovarian, breast and lung cancers may have been the most recent significant medicine developed from a natural product, Davis says. Most new drugs are now produced using genetics and molecular biology, he says.

Davis uses taxol as an example of how complicated intellectual property issues can be. The extremely slow-growing tree is found throughout the Pacific northwest in territories of many First Nations' people. He questions how compensation can be applied. 

"Who owns the intellectual property? The scientist who has put career and finances on the line? The entrepreneur who has invested money in a high risk enterprise with often low or zero returns. The chemist who made the actual discovery of how to extract the substance or the synthetic chemist who figures out how to duplicate it, there fore saving plant from eradication?"

The case of the Pacific yew is a sore point for the Haida, intellectual property issues aside, at the height of the research in the late 1980s and early 1990s bark strippers sought out this culturally important tree for $1 a pound. Coupled with the fact that this slow-growing tree is not highly valued by the commercial logging industry and is often trashed or burnt on cutblocks, many who use the tree for carving or medicinal purposes believe the yew is becoming endangered.

Protecting biodiversity

Wilson, for one, is far more concerned about biodiversity, than biopiracy. She thinks introduced species have had the most disturbing impact on the plants here. Twenty Sitka black-tailed deer were introduced in the 1920s, and with no natural predators, their numbers are now estimated at well-over 30,000. These animals have heavily browsed many plants used by the Haida, including berry bushes, cedar and yew saplings and the difficult to find devil's club.

Although Davis was referring to the pharmaceutical industry, he says herbal medicines are also a multi-million dollar industry. When a wild plant is identified as the next big thing in mass culture it can have a definite negative impact on the population. Davis says this is exactly what is happening in Tibet due to the formidable demand for medicinal plants from the Chinese.

Equally important to Wilson is keeping the practice of using plants alive.

"When I was growing up, my mother said that it was time to leave the old ways behind, because we have to survive in a white world. So we left lots of things behind. We lost lots."

She is concerned about the knowledge dying with the plants.

"We don't know all the things our plants can heal, but we have an idea. It would be sad not to have the choice to share. We don't want biopiracy to take the information, but if we don't use the information it will die. If we don't have the plants to use the information with it will die. How do you counteract that?"

That's why Wilson is so grateful that Turner happened to be on the Islands at that critical moment 30 years ago.

"Nancy has a way of working with people, so people see her for who she is. She is kind, she has a lot of integrity and she is respectful … She was there at the right time and right place and she has been a real conduit for us to activate that knowledge and use it again."

Case sets precedent

Wilson and Turner have worked closely over the years and recently attended Terra Madre: A Meeting of the World's Food Communities in Turin, Italy where sustainability issues around the culture of food were discussed.

While there, Wilson found out about a court decision in India which overturned a foreign company's patent on a plant used by Indians for hundreds of years. In that case, prior knowledge of the plant and its uses were proven.

"If it is in a book or it has been published somewhere, it shows you already have that knowledge, so the large pharmaceutical companies can not come in and take the information and use the plant and not have to compensate in some way."

Many countries are now producing databases of local plant inventories including traditional uses and enacting legislation to ensure that bioprospecting and biopiracy can no longer occur.

While these measures have helped to protect traditional property rights, they have also made it more difficult for low-budget botanical scholars to get permits for work such as basic taxonomy. Richard Schultes, a Harvard botanist and Davis's mentor, collected thousands of scientifically unclassified plants from the Amazon in the mid-twentieth century. Under the new international conventions and national laws, Schultes and Davis would not be able to do that same work today.

For his part, Davis is generally against limiting the flow of knowledge. One reason is he believes it's important to celebrate the genius of indigenous people. Different ways of knowing increase the human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that may confront us in the future, he says.

"The central revelation of anthropology is that the culture we are born in is just one model of reality and other cultures are not failed attempts at being you, they are a unique expression of the human imagination."

This becomes a powerful argument for the preservation of and respect for cultural diversity.

'Do we become less Haida?'

Wilson knows how tricky it is to mix the traditions of the Haida with the trappings of the modern world. When you have to make money to put food on your table, instead of gathering what you need from the sea or the forest, some of the other parts of an oral culture get left behind, she says.

"You can't just take the gathering over here, the telling of stories over there, the hunting there, how you make a canoe over here. Those things were all very much a part of the whole picture," she says.

"Do we become less Haida if we don't use that knowledge anymore? Am I prepared to go there? No. I don't want to find out."

As part of the cultural resource management department of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Wilson has the responsibility of making sure staff and visitors are knowledgeable about as many aspects of Haida culture as possible. The sharing of knowledge will soon be manifested physically in the heritage garden she and Turner are designing for the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre. It is her intention to make sure plants remain relevant to the next generations of Haida. As for the future, Wilson wants to make sure that plants remain relevant for the next generation of Haida.  This, she feels, is already happening when she witnesses the spark of interest in young people's eyes, at the knowledge that is contained within Turner's book.

Heather Ramsay lives in Queen Charlotte City and is a regular contributor to The Tyee. This article also appeared in SpruceRoots, a newsletter of the Haida Gwaii based Gowgaia Institute.  [Tyee]

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