Special Edition: Latin America

Cultural factors restricted growth of Amazonian ingredients, experts say

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

View of the Brazilian Amazon forest from above. Getty Images / Gustavo Frazao
View of the Brazilian Amazon forest from above. Getty Images / Gustavo Frazao

Related tags: Amazon rainforest, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Pharmacology, Ethnobotany

While botanical ingredients from the Amazon are key elements of the international trade, their growth has been stunted by cultural and environmental factors peculiar to the region, experts say.

There are several thousand botanical ingredients in trade around the globe. When looking at how many of these originate in the Amazon, it appears the region is severely underrepresented, given the area’s incredible biological diversity.

NutraIngredients-USA spoke with two experts on the region. Botanical ingredient sourcing specialist Chris Kilham consults with companies and operates a resource called TheMedicineHunter.com​. Mark Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.

Both have spent an extensive amount of time in the region collaborating with botanists and government officials, talking with indigenous harvesters and so forth. Both Kilham and Blumenthal said factors peculiar to the region have contributed to a situation in which there is still huge room for the discovery of new relevant ingredients and potential for growth in existing commodities.

Lack of writing a barrier

Blumenthal said one key factor that applies to the broadening of applications for Amazonian botanicals has to do with the history of traditional medicine in the region. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, to take two well known sources of botanical knowledge, have become such powerful wellsprings of innovation in the industry primarily because of their long history of use. And that history of use in both cases was documented through a long written history, providing ample and fairly easily accessed grist for the mills of ethnobotanical researchers.

But the lack of any form of writing in the region formed a huge impediment, Blumenthal said.

“There is not a codified system of traditional medicine in South America that has the same level of documentation to it in writing as you find in other areas of the world,” ​Blumenthal said.

“In many cases you are dealing with a preliterate society, where things were passed down via oral tradition. These ingredients didn’t have the benefits of 3,500 years of written history as you have with some other systems,” ​he said.

This slowed the growth of knowledge about the potential benefits of these botanicals, Blumenthal said. Ethnobotanical researchers have had to talk with individual practitioners. Some of these might be associated with small, hard-to-reach tribes with idiosyncratic languages and little history of interaction with outsiders.

Traditional medicine encylopedia

This situation is just starting to change. A conservation group working in Peru and western Brazil known as Acaté​ has assisted members of a people known as the Matsés assemble a two-volume traditional medicine encyclopedia, the first volume of which ran to 500 pages.

“The ​[Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia] marks the first time shamans of an Amazonian tribe have created a full and complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge written in their own language and words,” ​said Acaté founder Christoper Herndon, MD, in an interview published on the sitemongabay.com​.  According to the group, which was founded in 2013, a second volume of the encyclopedia has also been assembled.

The reference book was printed in the local language, to try to forestall biopiracy concerns. The primary purpose was to make sure herbal knowledge was passed down through the tribe, Herndon said.

Acaté has worked to help preserve this knowledge within the tribe for use in supporting the health of its own population, and not have it be used as an ethnobotanical resource for outsiders, per se. The conservation group has helped to establish ‘healing forests’ in local communities where medicinal plants are established in a forest setting.

Potential new ingredients

But the group has also worked to develop ingredient sources for trade to help provide sustainable incomes for tribe members. According to a report by The Guardian​ newspaper​, these potentially could include botanicals such as fruits like iaguaje (Mauritia flexuosa​), huasai (Euterpe precatoria​), huito (Genipa americana​) and ungurahui (Oenocarpus bataua​), seeds such as achiote (Bixa orellana​) and huicungo (Astrocaryum murumuru​), resins like sangre de grado (Croton lechleri​) as well as vines like uña de gato (Uncaria tomentosa​).

Infrastructure shortfall, political considerations restrict trade

Kilham said a few botanicals from the region have hit the big time in international trade. 

“Guayusa has made a big splash. It’s an Amazonian tea that is very pleasant tasting. The local people call it ‘night watchman’ because it gives you alertness without making you jittery,”​ he said. Other botanicals from the region that have hit the big time are açai berries, born on a palm that grows in the lower Amazon, and maca, a root from the Andes.

“Amazonian botanicals have been a bit slow to catch on and I think that’s due to the fact that the infrastructure is very inconsistent. In some places it’s OK but in others it's really pretty lousy,”​ he said.

“I think as some of these botanicals get more exposure they’ll become more popular. Cat’s claw, for example, is one of the best anti-inflammatory agents on Earth and it's strictly Amazonian,” ​he said.

Local political issues can restrict trade as well, Kilham said.

“The Brazilians do a great job in terms of their plant databases, but the strictures for medicinal plants are just ridiculous for doing any trade. The Peruvian databases aren’t so good, but their trade situation is better,”​ he said.

Worldwide spread of botanicals

Kilham said he’s sensitive to biopiracy concerns and supports indigenous peoples keeping control of that knowledge. But he said history has shown that plants of interest tend to spread. Maca, for example, is now being cultivated in China.

“There are probably at least 60 or 70 things we wouldn’t be eating around the world except for the trade in botanicals. Coffee was jealously guarded in the Middle East for a time before it spread all over the world. Cacao originated in the Amazonia and is now cultivated in tropical areas around the world,”​ he said.

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