- Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa by Abena Dove Osseo-Asare
Beginning in the 1980s, biologists and environmentalists began to tout the prospective value of medicinal drug plants as justification for saving tropical forests and their indigenous stewards. This rainforest medicine narrative was followed shortly by charges that such bioprospecting efforts represented neocolonial extensions of the genetic and intellectual property theft that had characterized centuries of North–South relations. Charges that foreign “biopirates” were deriving billions of dollars in profits by exploiting tropical plants and peoples resonated with developing world governments, many of which responded with sanctions against nearly all forms of ethnobotanical inquiry. [End Page 845]
In Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa, historian Abena Dove Osseo-Asare employs a novel and highly compelling method to explore the question of medicinal plants, innovation, revenue sharing, and drug development. Using archives as well as extensive interviews with local scientists and herbalists, she investigates the dynamic history and geography of six medicinal plants that are at one or another stage of patenting, international sales, and pharmaceutical development. Her examples are wisely chosen—all are native to Africa, all address a different domain of medical maladies (cancer, wounds, cardiac problems, malaria, obesity, and sexual dysfunction), and all have complex histories of medicinal use and dispersal. The example of the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) and hoodia (Hoodia gordonii) are especially instructive.
The Madagascar periwinkle has long served as a poster child for why we need to preserve tropical forests and for how Big Pharma has deprived indigenous societies and developing world countries of their intellectual property. In the 1960s, the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical giant patented the periwinkle alkaloid vincristine for the treatment of various cancers, including childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The mortality rate for ALL as a result dropped from 95% to 20% today. The periwinkle was indeed a miracle drug plant. But as Osseo-Asare argues, neither the environmentalist nor the biopiracy narrative holds up to scrutiny. Rather than being an endangered rainforest species, the periwinkle is pantropical in occurrence, inhabiting almost every tropical landscape as a weed and garden ornamental. Most importantly, outside of the species’ origin on the island of Madagascar, there is little ethnographic evidence to suggest that the inspiration for Eli Lilly’s patent owes its origin to the island’s indigenous population. The species was widely dispersed around the Indian Ocean by the 1700s, perhaps due to its reputation as an appetite suppressant and treatment for diabetes. Medicinal use of the plant to stabilize glucose may have been dispersed around the world, or it may have been independently discovered. In either case, by the twentieth century the use of periwinkle as a diabetes treatment was widespread, including Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Indeed, it was from a Jamaican source that Eli Lilly chemists drew their inspiration to test periwinkle as a possible oral diabetes treatment. Although these tests did not prove fruitful, researchers did note a collapse in white blood cells, which led them to test against ALL and ultimately develop its cure. Given the considerable profits that Eli Lilly has accrued as a result of vincristine’s discovery, it is not surprising that the periwinkle is often deployed in the literature as a “classic example of biopiracy,” but with little justification.
The case for biopiracy in the case of hoodia is much stronger. The cactus-like species has long been used by the San as an appetite suppressant, and unlike many medicinal species, hoodia’s distribution is limited to southern Africa. And the notion that “hungry” African Bushmen were receiving nothing for their discovery of a plant that helped “fat white people overseas get thin” (p. 192) played well in the press. Still, as Osseo-Asare points out, even in this case claims of intellectual property are contested, as Afrikaaners have been using the plant for similar ends for centuries. In the case of hoodia, although a South African research institute had patented the plant for...