Plants are at the heart of medical treatment. For centuries they have formed an important part of the materia medica used in different medical traditions. Hence explorers were often plant collectors, and expanding empires tried to acquire and control the cultivation of valuable plants.
The practice continues today. Bioprospecting is the development of traditional medicines as commercial products. Pharmaceutical companies from the developed world often look for chemically active ingredients in traditional remedies, which they can develop into commercial pharmaceutical products.
This is fiercely criticised as ‘biopiracy’ by those who believe it exploits indigenous knowledge. They point to the fact that companies may attempt to take out a patent on a medicine derived from a traditional cure without recognising the original users. Others argue the huge investment in research and development by pharmaceutical companies gives them this right.
Recent cases have seen agreements between traditional users of a medicine and pharmaceutical companies. For example, hoodia is a plant used by the San people of South Africa as an appetite suppressant when hunting or travelling on long journeys. There were long negotiations between the San and pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which was interested in developing products based on hoodia. The San eventually won the right to royalties from any products based on hoodia.
Techniques and Technologies:
L Schiebinger, Plants and empire: colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic world (Massachuttetes; London: Harvard University Press, 2004)H J Cook, Matters of exchange: commerce, medicine, and science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2007)
C Hayden, When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2003)
R Drayton Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the ’Improvement’ of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)
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