The future is as much about decarbonisation and digitalization as it is about Indigenous Knowledge. The faces transported across the Atlantic brought with them encyclopaedic personal knowledge of medicinal plants. But ultimately, they had to substitute local flora by carefully curating apothecary gardens that assimilated the knowledge of First Nations.
The West Indies has an enduring legacy of herbal medicine for disease management and the maintenance of well-being. This indigenous knowledge of the use of medicinal plants has over time led to the development of herbal pharmacopeias. But there has been a significant loss and cultural erosion of this indigenous knowledge, which depends on oral traditions for its transmission and codification. It is necessary that a concerted effort be made to preserve the residual knowledge.
One invisible barrier to this fading palimpsest of medicinal memory is the age-old stress in nomenclature for first published names which erase pre-existing indigenous labels, in accepting species epithets. The wuh-duh-puh tih-kuh shrub of the Tirio Nation of Suriname became Aphelandra Aurantiaca. The Coochapae became Coccoloba Latifolia and the Carapa became Carapa Guianensis. Botanists in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are well advised to re-evaluate this practice, in the context of a current and broader re-appraisal of priceless indigenous knowledge.
The knowledge that will be uncovered once we critically re-examine taxonomic protocols in favour of both assigning and restoring native names is immeasurable. One reason for this is that the taxonomies of First Nation Peoples and those trafficked to the West Indies maintained integrated epithets and taxonomies of roots, stems, leaves, and flowers across different species in the same family.
Primary ethnobotanical studies of Trinidad had restricted scope with regard to ill-health and localities. A seminal work by Wesley Wong in Blanchisseuse, titled, “Some Folk Medicinal Plants from Trinidad” published in Economic Botany, Vol. 30, No. 2, April-June 1976, pp. 103-142, held in Box: 25, Folder: 24 at the UWI, remains paradigmatic. Building on this study, Professor Compton Seaforth conducted a more extensive survey of medicinal plants across eighteen locations on the island.
From these seminal studies, we gather insights into single plant remedies, in different formulations, as either infusions or decoctions from various plant species and families. Species like the Justicia Pectoralis are used in oral preparations for the common cold. This species is known as tilo in Cuba. In Dominica and Martinique, it is called zeb chapantyè. In other places it is called, chambá carpintero, and té criollo.
Quillaja saponaria, are rare evergreens native to Chile. The Mapuche people use it to make medicine. This shrub has been used to synthesize an effective vaccine against shingles, and the world’s first malaria vaccine. A pair of saponin molecules, made from the bark of branches of quillaja saponaria clipped from mature trees, are being used by Novavax to synthesize a COVID-19 vaccine. The molecules are used to make an adjuvant, a substance that boosts the immune system. The plan is for Novavax to make billions of doses, mostly for low- and middle-income states.
With no reliable data on how many healthy quillay trees are left in Chile, it is clear that industries relying on quillay extracts will at some point need to switch to plantation-grown trees or a lab-grown alternative. Novavax’s adjuvant, known as Matrix-M, is a mixture of two saponin molecules. One molecule is called QS-21.
This molecule is elusive as it is found mainly in plants that are at least ten years old. Only GlaxoSmithKline and Novavax have relied heavily on QS-21, which remains a relatively new pharmaceutical ingredient. GSK’s extremely effective vaccine against shingles, Shingrix, and several other promising experimental serums contain QS-21. The quillay-based adjuvant used in Shingrix is also an ingredient of the malaria vaccine called Mosquirix.
Known as RTS,S and marketed as Mosquirix, RTS,S is the first vaccine for any parasitic disease. RTS,S targets a portion of the circumsporozoite protein on the exterior surface of the malaria parasite. Vaccinated individuals then generate antibodies to attack the parasite before it can enter red blood cells. RTS,S is composed of two parts: the antigen (RTS,S), and an adjuvant called AS01E. AS01E has a unique saponin — one that is extracted from the quillaja saponaria, which grows primarily in Chile.
Efficacy is modest. It is about fifty per cent effective in preventing clinical cases of malaria in children aged 5 to 17 months. In Nature Vol. 595, July 2021, pp. 388-393, scientists who conducted 590 aircraft vertical profiling measurements reported that the eastern Amazon ceased to be a carbon sink. Much of Brazil’s climate pollution comes from deforestation. The Munduruku people in the Tapajos River Basin had become encircled by railways, ports, hydroelectric dams, and thousands of illegal gold miners and loggers.
Today, the Ice Memory Project creates the first Database of Residual Knowledge contained in ice sheets and glaciers in danger of degradation or disappearance. A Medicinal Memory of the Residual Knowledge of Flora is imperative. Indigenous knowledge of these elusive plant ingredients across LAC is part of the future of edited life and personalized vaccines. But this Database will require the reinstating of indigenous plant names, and the creation of Cloud Forests Reserves like Tobago’s Main Ridge.