Western science is not entirely certain, but one hypothesis centers on the fact that "plants cannot run." If you are an animal you can survive by running or fighting back. Plants cannot run. They must defend themselves against being eaten by other means. Powerful chemical compounds that affect animals is thought to be one way in which plants defend themselves. If an animal is poisoned or disabled by a chemical compound in a plant, then maybe animals will be unable to finish eating that plant. Those same compounds may in more limited quantities be medicinal.
Indigenous peoples are those descendants of the original inhabitants of a location. Non-indigenous people are those who are not ancient inhabitants of a place. Only the indigenous people will know the plants and their uses. The non-indigenes will likely use commercially prepared products, often based on the plants of their ancient home. Aspirin is based on a compound found in the bark of a willow tree found in Europe, the ancient home of those of European ancestry. Modern day European descendants have, by and large, forgotten how to produce healing compounds from plants.
Indigenous healing systems include:
Liwadawad marer (Centella asiatica) is a plant used on babies to help reduce fear of hiccups. Hiccups are not considered a disease, but rather a sign the baby is healthy growing. The baby should not fear hiccups. In European culture, hiccups are a condition that one should seek to cure. There are local plant based medicines such as a spoonful of crystallized sap from Saccharum officinarum are administered to the baby to cure it. That would be a spoonful of sugar. Whether the condition is something to be cured (European view) or made less fearful (Pohnpei) or promoted (Kosrae) depends on the cultural context.
Soumwahu en eni/mas inut: diseases caused by affliction by spirits
To some extent the modern American illness of anorexia nervosa is a disease which is embedded in cultural contexts. Anorexia is currently unheard of in the FSM: there is no cultural context for it here.
What is the potential impact of "Caspar the Friendly Ghost" in a world in which ghosts are deadly serious and definitely unfriendly?
There are other medicines that exist in a cultural context:
What plants people use and how they use them is important, but knowing why they use them is also important. European based "western" doctors see medicine as being culture independent. Whether or not one believes a particular drug will work in not important to a "western" doctor.
Indigenous people use plants within the context of culture. The plant and its application involve biological, cultural, and social interactions for the healer and patient. A massage to treat tense muscles may include a conversation that relaxes the patient. Belief in the efficacy of a treatment is critical to whether the medicine will work.
This ethnobotany class does not seek to reveal "secret" information but rather to conserve and document what was once "common knowledge" and to reveal the parallels found in the use of such plants across the islands of the FSM. On the contrary the greater risk is of loss of the knowledge, hence ethnobotany seeks preservation through documentation and education.
Complex medicine recipes that only work for certain clans or under certain conditions are less likely to yield useful medicinal compounds. Simple, single plant recipes that are widely known and commonly used are most likely to have useful compounds. Some "secret" recipes are often composed of one or two commonly known medicinally useful plants that are the actual active ingredients. The other plants may not have a significant impact on the actual healing value of the compound. Here in Micronesia Morinda citrifolia (ii [Kosrae], weipwul [Pohnpei], nopur [Chuuk], nen [Chuuk], mangalweg [Yap], noni [Polynesia] is a common ingredient in many local medicine mixtures.
The process by which the medicine is produced is very important. A known European treatment for ingested poisons is to give the patient biologically clean, pure charcoal. Some medicines include scrapings from the charred inside of the inner shell of the coconut. This is also a charcoal treatment, any poisons the baby might have ingested will be absorbed by the charcoal.
An advisee of mine was absent from one of their classes on Monday. When I asked her why she had missed that class, she said she had diarrhea during the night and into the morning. I asked if she had tried sra kwem kwem Phymatosorus scolopendria. She looked at me and I knew from her eyes that she had no idea what I was talking about. She did not even know the plant's name in her own language, let alone that a baby frond of this plant might help with a temporary bout of diarrhea.
Of course Phymatosorus scolopendria cannot cure giardia, amoebic dysentery, or cholera. These require powerful antibiotics. For a routine case of transient diarrhea, however, Phymatosorus scolopendria is quite effective. The unknowns: toxicity, contraindications, side-effects.
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are the legitimate economic rights of an indigenous people to their knowledge. Medicinal plant knowledge may have economic value. If an indigenous plant is only found among a single group of indigenous people, then they may have sole rights to the uses of the plant. In this instance there may have to be:
If a plant is widely found and widely used medicinally, then claims of IPR by any one people will likely fail. Their use is legally considered general public knowledge. Many of our Pacific island plants that are widely used across many island and cultures. Some of these include Morinda citrifolia for variety of ailments, Ocimum sanctum for colds, Clerodendrum inerme for fever, Cassia alata for skin fungi.
Historically, politics and international economics drove ethnobotanical research. 1500's: Spanish invaders became aware of a tree bark from an unknown tree that was effective against malarial fevers. Called it quinine
1633: Jesuits describe its healing properties. Used in South America and Europe into next century with source unknown.
1735: French botanist sees and describes tree.
1739: Linnaeus names it Cinchona. No trees outside of South America, strict controls.
1852: Dutchman Hasskarl smuggles seeds out, but of the wrong variety. Low quinine content.
1861: Aussie Ledger obtains high quinine content seeds by paying off a local. Dutch gain quinine monopoly, grow it in Indonesia, Philippines.
1940: German capture Dutch capital and seeds in storage.
1942: Japanese capture Indonesia and Philippine quinine forms. Last Allied plane out of Philippines carried 4 million Cinchera seeds. Generated in Maryland, grown in Costa Rica.
Still: could not grow fast enough to meet demand. Fosberg could not find original trees, but did buy quinine from Nazis who had obtained it from Dutch reserves.
Aspirin: found in willow bark, and Filipendula ulmaria
Samoan (anti-HIV) (drug) treatment
Used to treat yellow fever (viral help). Marmala (Itomalanthus nutans)