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Medicinal Plants Popular and Unprotected in Mexico

Clemente Calixto, a certified traditional healer, discusses the healing properties of a plant during a workshop in Mexico City. In his community in the southern state of Oaxaca, he uses different medicinal plants to make soap and ointments, and to heal a variety of ailments. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Clemente Calixto, a certified traditional healer, discusses the healing properties of a plant during a workshop in Mexico City. In his community in the southern state of Oaxaca, he uses different medicinal plants to make soap and ointments, and to heal a variety of ailments. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

MEXICO CITY, Oct 28 2015 (IPS) - “This plant heals 150 ailments, like diabetes, high blood pressure and gastritis. It’s prepared as an infusion or blended with water, and you take it every day,” says Clemente Calixto, a traditional indigenous healer in Mexico, holding up a green leafy branch.

Calixto, who belongs to the Mazateco indigenous community, is talking about palomilla or common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), an herbaceous annual flowering plant in the poppy family – one of the more than 3,000 plants in frequent use in this Latin American country to treat a broad range of health problems.

“We work with medicinal plants. Some grow wild in the countryside and others we plant in yards and patios. We make soaps, ointments, cough syrups, dewormers,” Calixto told IPS.

The healer, from the town of Jalapa de Díaz in the state of Oaxaca, 460 km south of Mexico City, also uses chaya or tree spinach (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) and caña agria or spiked spiralflag ginger (Costus spicatus), which he said help heal kidney problems.

Calixto, one of the 30 registered traditional healers with credentials from the health authorities in his region, is one of thousands of herbalists who process, sell and prescribe medicinal plants in Mexico, where they enjoy only weak legal protection.

The Digital Library of Traditional Medicine, created by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), lists more than 3,000 species of plants in daily use. Many of them are sold fresh or dried.

In this Latin American country of 120 million inhabitants, eight out of 10 people use traditional plants or animal products to cure ailments.

“There is little legal protection,” Arturo Argueta, a professor at UNAM’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Humanities, told IPS. “We don’t have adequate legislation; there should be a federal law and institutions that are replicated at the level of the states to prevent biopiracy and grant recognition to this ancestral wisdom.”

In 1994 Argueta, a veteran researcher, and other colleagues published the first “atlas of plants used in Mexico’s traditional medicine”. Their research found that the sale of these plants is especially common in areas to the south of Mexico City, their habitual users come from all socioeconomic strata, and their prices are low.

“The most widely used are 50 herbs,” said the expert. “Many of them grow wild, and others are planted. Use expanded from exotic users in the south of the country to a much wider population.”

Several of the species are protected by Mexican law, as they are listed as threatened or endangered.

Traditional indigenous medicine is recognised in Mexico’s constitution as a cultural right of native peoples.

In addition, the health ministry’s office of traditional medicine, created in 2002, has a list of 125 species that can be prescribed in the national health system since reforms introduced in 2008 in the general health law, which incorporated and regulated traditional medicine.

The general health law recognises the existence of herbal medicine and the “regulations on health inputs” regulates the definition, registration, preparation, packaging, advertising and points of sale of herbal medicines and remedies.

The “regulations on health inputs” office issues credentials annually to traditional healers, authorising them to practice the healing arts that have passed from generation to generation.

Lorenza Euan, a Maya Indian, makes soaps, ointments, mosquito repellent, antibacterial gel, cough syrups and shampoo, together with four other women in the Maya Dzak – Maya medicine, in that tongue – cooperative in the town of Lázaro Cárdenas in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo.

“We inherited it from our ancestors. You heal with the plant’s stalks or roots,” she told IPS, holding up an ointment used to treat muscle pain or bruises, which has extracts from 18 varieties of plants, as an example of the products they make.

“We pick fresh plants, weigh them, wash them, crush them, and boil the mixture,” to prepare the products, she explained.

In their herb garden, the women in the cooperative grow around 25 different species, including nettles, arnica, aloe vera and basil.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls for the protection of traditional knowledge, the integration of alternative medicine in national health systems, the certification of those who practice traditional healing, and the fomenting of research.

Euan joins her voice to those who demand greater protection and greater recognition and promotion of traditional healing.

Mexico’s health ministry drew up a guide for strengthening health services using traditional medicine. It recognises as a threat the loss of biodiversity, caused by land-use change, deforestation and the depletion of natural resources.

In its “traditional medicine strategy: 2014-2023”, WHO states that as traditional medicine becomes more popular “it is important to balance the need to protect the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and their health care heritage while ensuring access to (traditional medicine) and fostering research, development and innovation.”

WHO also warns that while intellectual property “may support innovation and provide a stimulus to invest in research, it can also be abused to misappropriate” traditional medicine.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) protects traditional medical knowledge against unauthorised use by third parties.

But WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore has not yet reached an agreement on an international legal instrument “for the effective protection of traditional cultural expressions and traditional knowledge, and to address the intellectual property aspects of access to and benefit-sharing in genetic resources.”

Meanwhile, the Mexican government has banned the use of some species of plants in infusions or vegetable oils because of the level of toxicity – a position rejected by traditional healers and experts.

The latest list, from 1999, prohibits 76 species, including some that are habitually used by herbalists and traditional medicine practitioners, such as calamus or sweet flag, hemp (a variety of cannabis), belladonna, wormseed, rue and salvia.

An updated version of the catalogue, expanded to 200 prohibited plant varieties, was prepared by the current government of conservative President Enrique Peña Nieto in September 2014, but has not yet gone into effect.

Argueta said the list is a “contradiction, because instead of informing about the problems, it acts in a punitive manner, without providing information.”

Calixto said: “We don’t agree that curative plants should be declared toxic.”

Euan also disagrees. “We don’t understand why they want to hurt us, when what we need is support,” she complained.

Argueta suggested that one solution would be to register traditional medicine as intangible cultural heritage with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

“We are dedicated to collecting quality information about this sector, to offer a complete, dignified image,” he said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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