Did you know that tropical rainforests occupy only two percent of the earth's surface, yet they are home to over half of all the plant and animal species found on this planet? Unfortunately, great swaths of tropical rainforest the size of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined are being destroyed each year. Imagine what this will do to the future of biodiversity on our mother earth. At this rate, we will lose many of these natural treasures before we even understand the value they possess. What value do these plants possess? Well, for one, many of them can be used as medicine to help cure people. Imagine this. You are in the jungle, where there is no hospital around for miles, and you get bitten by a snake. What would you do? If you knew your rainforest plants, you could identify which one could save your life! After finding this plant, you could concoct a tea from its leaves, drink the tea, and feel the venom being washed away. This plant could give you a second chance at life!
Many of the plants and trees of the rainforest have multiple medical functions. Many traditional medicines are made by drying the leaves of these special plants or trees and boiling them into a tea. Check out Kavitha's story about her personal visits with a traditional healer in Todos Santos. One tree that I found did not have a medical purpose per se, but perhaps a more therapeutic one--the sap from this tree is used in the production of chicle (chewing gum). Due to the synthetic production of gum these days, being a chiclero (a gum maker) is not as profitable as it used to be. Currently, over one hundred prescription medicines are derived from plants. More than one third of these come from the rain forest. The fact that only less than one percent of tropical rain forest plants have been extensively researched proves there is much potential for new medicines from rainforest plants. How can we save these valuable plants from being destroyed? One possible solution is sustainable development. The idea sounds simple, but it is complex once put into practice. Sustainable development means to collect, harvest, or extract only the minimum amount necessary of a particular resource from a particular habitat (e.g. rainforest) on a continuing basis. This way the habitat is disrupted as little as possible and the plants are not completely wiped out.
Fortunately, when Klaus and I were in Belize we were able to visit a farm that does just that: practice sustainable development to preserve rain forest plants that are used in traditional medicine. After a bumpy ride from Tikal, Guatemala, we arrived in the small town of San Ignacio (Cayo), Belize. We dropped our one-ton packs at the Hay-Et (the Belizian pronunciation for Hyatt) and went off with our new friend, Samuel, to the Ix Chel Farm. To reach the farm, we hiked down a trail called the Panti Medicine Trail. While walking along the trail, Samuel pointed out the many plants and trees that grow naturally in the jungle. He had plenty of experience hiking in jungle areas and would have no problem surviving there if he had to. Samuel explained to us that the trail was named after the late Dr.Eligio Panti, a self-taught healer who used traditional Mayan medicinal cures. He lived until the ripe old age of one hundred and three! From Samuel, we also heard about Dr. Rosalia Arvigo, an American, who studied as an apprentice under the respected Dr.Panti to further understand and preserve traditional Mayan healing cures. Dr. Arvigo helped establish the Rainforest Medicine Trail and the Ix Chel farm to contribute to the sustainable development of rainforest plant species and traditional herbal medicines. Unfortunately, much of this traditional knowledge is not written down or found in books. Generally, it is passed on from generation to generation through oral teachings. Sadly, many of the guardians of this knowledge are elders in the community and do not have younger people to whom they can pass on their teachings.
At the end of the trail, Klaus and I decided the best way to get back to San Ignacio would be by canoe. As I walked down to the water a fragile elderly man named Thomas Green asked if we could give him a ride down the river. When we got to the river, Samuel said, "This man will be able to tell you a lot of stories about the river". It turned out that Mr. Green was a ninety-two-year-old traditional healer. From time to time he visited the Ix Chel farm to share his knowledge with Dr. Arvigo. Neither Klaus nor I knew much about paddling so we left it up to the expert, Mr. Green, to lead the way. He paddled all the way to his destination! Pretty good for a ninety-two year-old man. I enjoyed listening to his stories about his experiences on the Macal River. Of course we couldn't let him go without finding out his secret of longevity. "Be patient and don't let anything worry you." Now that sounded like medicine I could take!
Abeja - Men of Maize
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