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Tropical Drugs

Newspapers and science blogs write a lot about the big new studies that come out in big-name fields like biology and physics, but you rarely hear about the work of geographers. So I thought I'd discuss an interesting article from the latest Annals of the Association of American Geographers that hits on a favorite topic of mine -- the wilderness idea.

Robert A. Voeks writes about the popular idea that tropical rainforests contain plants that could produce miracle cures for a variety of ailments. Despite some harsh words for the "drugs will solve all our problems" theory of medicine, he admits that the sheer biodiversity of the tropics means that if there are miracle cures out there, they'll be found in the tropics. What's interesting is where in the tropics.

The idea of tropical miracle cures has been an effective support for environmentalist campaigns to save the rainforest. People too selfish to care about nature for its own sake and too shortsighted to buy arguments about the importance of ecosystem functions can at least appreciate the possibility that a tropical plant might cure their heart disease. This idea rests, however, on a certain idea of what it means to preserve nature. The tropical rainforest is conceptualized as a primeval wilderness which should be preserved free of human touch.

Yet Voeks argues that it is in disturbed areas that useful drugs are most likely to be found. One reason is biological. Bioactive compounds of the type that make good drugs are more common in fast-growing annuals, which are in turn found more often in disturbed areas, such as along farm fields and around houses.

The other reason is that tne crucial avenue to finding these tropical drugs is talking to the people who have been living in these environments, and thus have already done the grunt work of fining many bioactive compounds. (This has in turn spawned a new crisis in the eyes of more radical environmentalists, who see nature being increasingly commodified and indigenous knowledge being stolen and even patented by transnational pharmaceutical companies.) These indigenous people are more likely to discover drugs in disturbed areas, since that's where they spend most of their time. More interestingly, Voeks compares the medical knowledge of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. If medicinal plants were common in undisturbed nature but are wiped out by human intervention, we would expect hunter-gatherers -- who disturb their environments less -- to have a wider pharmacopeia. But in fact the opposite is true. Farmers know more medicinal plants because their activities encourage them to grow right next door.

This is emphatically not an argument that we can go ahead and chop down the rainforest. The problem with wilderness ideology is that it collapses all human disturbances into a single "bad" category. Indigenous farming is a far cry from creating pasture to take advantage of tax incentives. The larger point here is that conservation must incorporate both disturbance and human presence. It's too easy to say "just get the people out and let nature do its thing."


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