Herbal medicines and the indigenous peoples
A GINA feature By Natasha Victor
Guyana Chronicle
December 14, 2003

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HERBAL medicine is fundamental to the survival of many indigenous people living in rural environments, without accessibility to medical attention in cases of emergency.

Due to the geographical locations of the four regions that the indigenous people inhabit in Guyana, the cost of travelling to urban areas for healthcare is prohibitive in most cases, due to unfortunate economic circumstances. In particular areas such as Region Eight, it is only possible to reach a city hospital by aircraft.

Living in a developing country, means that although there is progress being made in the medical sector, government expenditure cannot stretch to dispense pharmaceutical drugs all over the country.

Consequently, many Amerindian tribes within the interior regions are obliged to use their own traditional medicines which their ancestors have used for centuries. Their medicines are composed mainly of natural ingredients, both flora and fauna, and deal with widespread problems such as malaria and snakebites.

Herbal remedies are therefore crucial to the survival of the tribes in the four regions, but the question at hand is, do they really work?

Community Development Officer, Mr. Ovid Williams, a member of the Patamona tribe in Region Eight, gave a deeper insight into the practices of Amerindian medicine.

He said: "I have grown up with these customs, and believe me I have seen them work!"

Mr. Williams, who was born in Paramakatoi and studied at Queens College, Georgetown, explained that traditional medicine has been used amongst the native tribes as far back as the pre-Columbian era.

"It is an adulterated form of treatment, which I use myself. It would be very beneficial for the Guyanese people to be educated on alternative medicine in this country," he continued.

With 8,000 people living in Region Eight alone, everyday problems such as headaches and the common cold need to be dealt with. Mr. Williams gave the following information, as to how the Patamona tribe treats these problems.

For a simple headache, they use a black, shiny insect called a 'Uyuk' which is about 2cm in length. The indigenous people sting themselves around the temples with the Uyuk's sting and this relieves the pain.

For a prolonged migraine, a stem of razor grass is inserted into the nostril and yanked downwards, cutting the inside of the nostril. The initial bleeding in the nostril gives immediate relief.

Many elderly people suffering from arthritis in their knees, use a ginger which is slightly different from that used in Georgetown. The individual cuts his/her knee very lightly several times, and rubs the ginger on the wounds. Although this is initially painful and burns, the pain is eliminated after a period of time.

The Patamona tribe has developed an antidote for snakebites, which requires them to kill a Caiman and take out the teeth. Mr. Williams explained that the when you scrape the Caiman tooth onto the bite, and strap it down for three hours, it draws the venom out of the blood. The tooth needs to be changed every two to three hours, but it certainly works.

He explained: "There seems to be some kind of magnetic force, which draws the venom out of the body. You can actually see the venom in your arm as it travels in your bloodstream."

As there is not enough quinine in the villages to treat malaria, they discovered this remedy by experiment: Cut four lemons into quarters and pick a handful of young lime leaves or bamboo leaves. Then boil them in 500ml of water and add a bottle of Guinness. Boil until half the liquid has evaporated and drink a shot of this concoction three times daily. Symptoms of malaria, such as fever, stop normally on the second day. It is not evident as to whether the malaria is completely rid of the body. However, Mr. Williams claims the individual no longer suffers the normal symptoms of the disease.

The Patamona tribe takes preventative measures against the common cold. They gather vegetables similar to wild eddoes, cut them up, boil them until they resemble calaloo. You leave the mixture until it begins to rot and develops a porridge-like texture. The boys training to be hunters in the forest, drink this and then push a small plant called "busy-busy" down their throats in order to regurgitate it. They then begin to build resistance against the virus.

Dr. Desiree Fox, a lecturer at the University of Guyana, and part of the Amerindian Research Unit, said that there have been many research projects into the medicinal history, initiation and constituents of the herbal remedies used by the indigenous tribes.

Dr. Fox explained that there have been publications on Amerindian medicine as far back as 1980, and these are available for the public to peruse on request in the Caribbean Section (CRL) at the University of Guyana's Library.

The American Smithsonian Institute, has also taken an interest in the research of their traditional medicines, but there is still much more analysis to be done.

The Chinese are an example of a people who use effective, ancient medicine in the contemporary world. In the Western hemisphere, Chinese herbal medicine has become abundant on the market and is recognised by "conventionalists" as being effective.

There is a danger however, of over-exceeding the daily doses of health products. It should only be taken in moderation. In Europe, the company Holland and Barrett are specialists in selling herbal medicines, offering alternatives to prescribed drugs, such as Camomile for relaxation and Evening Primrose Oil to aid the discomfort of menstruation.

The British Ministry of Health in London, stated in August 2003, that compared to Western drugs, Chinese medicines are generally considered to be relatively less toxic. They usually contain naturally occurring constituents such as herbs in low individual concentrations because of the long historical usage.

The situation is the same with traditional Amerindian medicine.

The Chinese confronted a similar problem to the Amerindians with the disease malaria. The disease is caused by a parasite, Plasmodium Falciparium, and had started becoming resistant to the antidote quinine or Quinidine. Chinese scientists discovered over three decades ago, that the use of extracts from the herb wormwood is highly effective in treating malaria.

Dutch researchers concluded that the wormwood extract, artemether, is as effective as quinine.

The Chinese also claim that ginger, which is used in the treatment of stomach problems, nausea, coughs and rheumatism (Amerindians use it for arthritis), is also a preventative measure against cancerous tumours.

Researchers at the Forest Research Institute, Malaysia, concluded that populations with high risks of cancer should be encouraged to include a lot of ginger in their diet.

It can be argued, that there are many advantages and disadvantages to using herbal remedies in Guyana. On the one hand, using Paracetamol to relieve a headache is more straightforward, than stinging your temples with an insect.

Further research is necessary to find out what are the long-term effects of particular herbal medicines on the human body. There are doctors and scientists who oppose the use of herbal medicines, arguing that particular ingredients are damaging to the internal organs. However, this is yet to be proven. In the scheme of things, it is very cost-effective for those who cannot afford conventional Western medicine and rely upon nature itself to help their communities to survive.

We do not know what the likelihood is of using traditional Amerindian medicine in the cities. However, unless more research is done, we may never know whether cures or remedies for our serious problems are right on our doorsteps.