Indigenous traditional medicine knowledge is at risk of disappearing

People | Human Health

By Ellie Davis, Freelance Writer

Published April 19th, 2022

The traditional medicine practices of Indigenous Peoples have the potential to benefit people globally and remain a crucial form of primary care for many. However, the knowledge and species involved in these healing methods are at risk of disappearing forever.

People and cultures have evolved alongside their local flora and fauna for thousands of years. In this process, we have developed practices of healing and survival. While some have been forgotten, many are used to this day both in Western and traditional medicines (TM).

Traditional medicines originate from indigenous knowledge, skill and practices that are used for the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of an ailment. | Katherine Hanlon / Unsplash

The health of people and the environment are inextricably linked. The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report describes how inequalities, exploitation of people and environments, and historical patterns of marginalisation are resulting in dramatically unequal outcomes in the health of people and ecosystems around the globe.

Overexploitation of the environment and anthropogenic climate change is leading to more ‘spillover events’, in which diseases cross from other species into humans. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of such a spillover, and as habitat destruction continues, we risk increasing the numbers of pandemics in the future.

Primary care must be available to all, but environmental destruction is making that goal ever more difficult, while increasing the risk of disease. Many of the active compounds in medicines are extracted from other species. Insulin, hormonal contraceptives, heparin and most antiviral vaccines are just a few examples of drugs that rely on extracts from animal species. A recent study suggested that even at a very conservative estimate, we are losing at least one potential major new drug through species loss each year.

We must, therefore, find ways to utilise natural sources of medicine without furthering the issues already caused by overexploitation. A better understanding of how healthcare uses and interacts with the natural world has never been more important.

‘We are losing at least one potential major new drug through species loss each year.’

What is traditional medicine?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines traditional medicines as ‘the sum total of the knowledge, skill and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.’

The WHO estimates that 80% of the world’s population relies primarily on TM practices, which are often cheaper and more accessible than Western medicine. For example, across Africa, there is one traditional healer for every 500 people, but only one conventional medical practitioner for every 40,000 people.

The use of traditional medicine in rural communities remains a crucial form of primary care. | Annie Spratt / Unsplash

An ethnozoological study in Ethiopia published in early 2022 aimed to better understand who is practising traditional medicines and how TMs are being used. The study aimed to document this knowledge, which is being lost as these practices are passed from generation to generation.

Researchers interviewed TM practitioners from six kebeles from the city of Motta in Ethiopia. Selected by community leaders, these practitioners are recognized as experts by the locals due to their knowledge and 67% are interested in passing on this knowledge to the next generation.

‘Across Africa, there is one traditional healer for every 500 people but only one conventional medical practitioner for every 40,000 people.’

This study, like many in the field, had a very small sample size, collating information from only 33 practitioners. This may not be an issue, as work to preserve such teachings would need to be place-based and community-focused.

Mammals were the most common (64%) class of animal species used for TMs, followed by birds (16%) and reptiles (8%). Some of the practices include using hyena (Crocuta Crocuta) dried skin to treat evil eye, others include eating porcupine meat for tuberculosis or drinking goat blood mixed with sugar for anaemia.

Each remedy was marked by a fidelity level, in which practitioners ranked 100% fidelity levels in honey bees, stingless bees, whisper and tigers. On the other hand, the use of hyenas ranked low in fidelity. A similar pattern of class usage was observed in a study in another part of Ethiopia as well as in studies in Mexico and Brazil, which included the use of bees in remedies.

The study also highlighted key health concerns for patients who come for treatment of illnesses such as tuberculosis, impotency, chills, measles, postpartum haemorrhage, rabies and asthma. Despite also having proof of some of these remedies being inefficient, as was the case of dog-transmitted rabies, the fact that they are aware and interested in treating these conditions should still be enough for research to support their traditions.

Research like this may also serve the purpose of cultural preservation. While many of the TM practices may not be proved effective, research offers an opportunity to document knowledge from practitioners to pass on to the younger generations.

Culture and conservation

Indigenous peoples have an intricate knowledge of their local environment. Therefore, the preservation of epistemologies and traditional knowledge could play a crucial role in protecting habitats, as well as mitigating inequalities, by ensuring wider access to primary healthcare. 

The Baka people of Cameroon collect and consume honey without hurting the bees and damaging their hive. | zuzu../ Flickr

In the aforementioned study in Ethiopia, practitioners showed awareness of many animal species they rely on being lost to deforestation and also through overexploitation. Despite not having an education on conservation concepts there seems to be some understanding that slaughtering these animals is threatening their medicinal practices.

However, ethnobiological studies are finding that this knowledge is being lost and with it both primary care for much of the world’s population and potential for new developments across all medical practices.

The causes of such loss are myriad, including globalisation, government policies, capitalism, colonialism, rapid social-ecological changes and the loss of key species through overexploitation and ecological damage. However, there is a long history of exploitation and harm towards these communities and their knowledge systems, which is echoed in today’s extractive models of research.

An intersectional and networked approach involving indigenous people around the world is necessary. As shown by a 2019 study, land managed by indigenous people in Australia, Brazil and Canada supported threatened species richness more significantly than in areas protected by Western conservation efforts. This highlights the importance of giving power to Indigenous nations.

‘Preservation of traditional knowledge could play a crucial role in protecting habitats and mitigating inequalities’

While decolonial practices are not new, increasing attention to them has begun to change approaches to studying traditional practices and conservation ecology alike. Multiple calls have been published in a 2021 Nature publication calling for and outlining decolonial approaches which enfold alternative ontologies into ecological practice.

One of the last surviving pre-Columbian societies, the Kogi people, are working with the Amazon Conservation Team and using a mobile phone app to create geo-referenced maps of their land within the framework of their cultural knowledge. Through such work, a rich dataset can be collected from an otherwise biodiverse but inaccessible part of the world.

While Western technologies are helping to expand upon and preserve traditional knowledge, indigenous approaches are transforming the way some people think about their environment. In Canada, the Muteshekau Shipu, a river culturally significant to the Innu people, has been granted legal personhood to prevent its destruction. Such an approach, which aims to transform the view of our environment from a resource to be exploited into mutual living things, is being championed by indigenous people across the globe.

Expanding on these existing decolonial methodologies and working with indigenous communities to better understand health care practices is a potential route to better conserve the environment while promoting global health.

An aboriginal Australian woman. Decolonising access to indigenous people’s land to protected areas of conservation may actually achieve their intended goals of biodiversity. | Steve Evans / Flickr

Disappearing knowledge

Researchers are beginning to document TM knowledge and skills and understand how these are distributed among populations. However, in doing so, it is becoming clear that much of this knowledge is being lost. Reasons are myriad and complex.

Knowledge is forgotten as key species are lost through overexploitation, an issue that may be rectified through conservation efforts. But languages are also dying out and with them, a knowledge that has only ever been passed down through generations orally. This adds complexity to the conservation of traditional knowledge.

‘Knowledge is forgotten as key species are lost through overexploitation, an issue that may be rectified through conservation efforts.’

Work with indigenous communities has historically been, and continues to be extractive, seeing these communities as a resource rather than a partner in such studies. But as knowledge is lost with languages and epistemologies, it is becoming apparent that such an approach is not only unjust but also ineffective.

As John Sandlos and Arn Keeling so eloquently wrote in their research into traditional knowledge in Canada, ‘Indigenous [traditional knowledge] is not simply a storehouse of scientific data on plants and animals, but is woven together with historical memories of rapid social, economic and environmental changes associated with northern development projects.’

As this work continues, it will be crucial to find ways to work with communities and people without exploiting their knowledge and culture. There have been calls for more consideration in such practices including, most recently, by the IPCC Working Group II, suggesting there is real hope for such approaches.

‘Researchers must find ways to work with communities and people without exploiting them’

Time to act

As COVID-19 moves from pandemic to endemic and climate scientists around the world protest the lack of action from governments, it is clear that challenging times are ahead. The problems we are facing are complex and multifaceted. Care for people and our environment are inextricably linked.

Researchers are finding new ways to provide care, restore cultural ties and protect species. A full understanding of how the fields of Western medicine, traditional practices and conservation ecology interact can ensure care and equity for people and the natural environment.

But we must act now! Knowledge and species are being lost at alarming rates. This loss harms the environment, limits access to primary healthcare to those in 80% of the world and echoes through to Western medicines.

‘Care for people and our environment are inextricably linked.’

Research into indigenous TM can benefit the community by documenting knowledge that may be lost in time. Through years of colonisation and overexploitation, many communities have seen their traditions and cultures stripped away. We must find ways to carry out conservation research that looks to discover new medicines but we must do so through equitable and considered research practices. If not for us, let us do it to conserve access to these medicines for primary care.

Featured Image: Mulugeta Wolde | Unsplash

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