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Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa

Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa

by Abena Dove Osseo-Asare

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For over a century, plant specialists worldwide have sought to transform healing plants in African countries into pharmaceuticals. And for equally as long, conflicts over these medicinal plants have endured, from stolen recipes and toxic tonics to unfulfilled promises of laboratory equipment and usurped personal patents. In Bitter Roots, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare


For over a century, plant specialists worldwide have sought to transform healing plants in African countries into pharmaceuticals. And for equally as long, conflicts over these medicinal plants have endured, from stolen recipes and toxic tonics to unfulfilled promises of laboratory equipment and usurped personal patents. In Bitter Roots, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare draws on publicly available records and extensive interviews with scientists and healers in Ghana, Madagascar, and South Africa to interpret how African scientists and healers, rural communities, and drug companies—including Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Unilever—have sought since the 1880s to develop drugs from Africa’s medicinal plants.             Osseo-Asare recalls the efforts to transform six plants into pharmaceuticals: rosy periwinkle, Asiatic pennywort, grains of paradise, Strophanthus, Cryptolepis, and Hoodia. Through the stories of each plant, she shows that herbal medicine and pharmaceutical chemistry have simultaneous and overlapping histories that cross geographic boundaries. At the same time, Osseo-Asare sheds new light on how various interests have tried to manage the rights to these healing plants and probes the challenges associated with assigning ownership to plants and their biochemical components.                A fascinating examination of the history of medicine in colonial and postcolonial Africa, Bitter Roots will be indispensable for scholars of Africa; historians interested in medicine, biochemistry, and society; and policy makers concerned with drug access and patent rights.

Editorial Reviews

Stacey Langwick

“By choosing to investigate colonial and postcolonial science through scientific work with plant medicines, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare deepens our understanding of the power relations not only between African and European or American scientists but also between healers and these indigenous and foreign scientists. Her detailed account of transnational scientific collaborations will be a lasting contribution to the field of science studies.”
Harold J. Cook

Bitter Roots is a book for our times: an age of bioprospecting and biopiracy, with hope for partnerships bringing bioprosperity. Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s remarkable investigations clarify both the facts and the issues through the example of how the roots of several plants associated with Africa have been used, studied, and remade. She notes the slippery entanglements between traditional and scientific practices and, in the process, stalks not only knowledge but justice. Informative, bold, and sensitive.”
Science News

“In a fascinating look at modern and traditional medicine, the author tells the stories of efforts to commercialize pharmaceuticals from six African plants.”
Quarterly Review of Biology - Manuel A. Aregullin

"In a book that reads as an ethnographic whodunit mystery, Osseo-Asare masterfully threads five stories that describe the complexities of determining ownership of medicinal plant knowledge when this knowledge spans over time, communities, and countries. A product of years of field research in Africa interviewing healers, scientists, and community members as well as reviewing archived material, the author, a remarkable academic historian, in the end makes it clear that the overwhelming amount of twists and turns in the historical path that a medicinal plant can take on its way to becoming a drug makes it impossible to assign rights of intellectual property. . . . A must read for scholars as well as the general public interested in herbal medicine, from academics who specialize in African studies or medical history to researchers in the area of pharmaceuticals as well as policymakers who deal with ownership rights and patents."
The American Historical Review

"In a refreshing and innovative approach to bioprospecting, Bitter Roots helps to fill this gap by telling the stories of six African healing plants—rosy periwinkle, Asiatic pennywort, grains of paradise, Strophanthus, Cryptolepis, and Hoodia—all of which have been the subject of commercial investigation. By taking us on a historical journey from colonial exploration and exploitation to the contemporary controversies within which such plants are located, Osseo-Asare shows how multiple innovators have contributed toward the shaping of scientific knowledge. Through meticulous ethnographic research, she demonstrates how class distinctions allowed some parties to claim credit for drug discovery at the expense of others, highlighting the complexity of natural product research in African countries. Bitter Roots is not only engaging and provocative, but also provides new perspectives on old stories, in a region that has received little attention."

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The Search for Healing Plants in Africa

By Abena Dove Osseo-Asare


Copyright © 2014 Abena Dove Osseo-Asare
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08552-4


Take Madagascar Periwinkle for Leukemia and Pennywort for Leprosy

Manan-tsira ka mahay mahandro ny vazaha. The foreigners have salt, therefore they know how to cook.

—Malagasy proverb, in Ralibera, Vazaha et Malgaches en Dialogue

In 1965, the U.S. Patent Office awarded the chemist Gordon Svoboda two valuable patents for work he had conducted on behalf of the drug company Eli Lilly. The patents granted Svoboda, and therefore Lilly, exclusive rights to unique processes to extract chemicals from the plant Vinca rosea (now called Catharanthus roseus). Lilly went on to market the chemicals as drugs to treat two types of cancer, leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma. By the late 1980s, annual profits from the medications, marketed as Oncovin and Velban, were reportedly between US$90 and US$400 million.

The plant, commonly known as "rosy periwinkle" (hereafter referred to simply as "periwinkle"), was originally from Madagascar. For two de cades, periwinkle has been at the symbolic center of debates over the distribution of rewards from plant-based pharmaceuticals. Activists have argued that Lilly "owed" the citizens of Madagascar (the Malagasy) for its profits, given that the plant is widely used in herbal medicine there. Not surprisingly, scientists behind the research at Lilly's laboratories in Indianapolis disagreed. Svoboda's collaborator Irving Johnson explained, "In this case I do not believe there is a compelling reason to suggest that Madagascar's role in the discovery of the pharmacological action of a few of the alkaloids from this plant represents 'easy picking' or any logical requirement for compensation. It was certainly not easy and required millions of dollars of investment." Advocates for benefit-sharing agreements between drug companies and local communities retorted that regardless of whether Lilly's drugs represented a direct extension of Malagasy practice, Madagascar was in danger of losing forests that might hold other valuable cures, and compensation for periwinkle might prove an incentive for their preservation. As U.S. legal scholar James Boyle put it, Madagascar needed a way to compensate indigenous peoples who "can find no place in a legal regime constructed around a vision of individual, transformative, original genius."

In fact, around the same time that Lilly researchers found new methods to extract alkaloids from periwinkle, the Malagasy physician and frequently heralded "genius" Albert Rakoto-Ratsimamanga was involved in ongoing research to develop curative acids from another plant, Indian pennywort (Centella asiatica). Ratsimamanga and his French collaborator Pierre Boiteau received patents in Europe and North America for a process to extract hemisuccinates from pennywort acids in 1968. They licensed the process to the French drug company La Roche, which first marketed the wound treatment as Madécassol. By 2010 the company, now La Roche-Posay, included extracts of the plant in its wonder treatment for wrinkles, Redermic. Like the Lilly scientists, Malagasy citizens sought patents for plant-based drugs to amass private wealth. Ratsimamanga's involvement with pennywort complicates the mythical story of periwinkle that centers on the exploitation of Malagasy indigenes because it shows that African scientists were involved in drug prospecting at the same time as researchers at Lilly.

The better-known periwinkle case has come to symbolize many things to different people, depending on their concerns over the environment, traditional medicine, or intellectual property rights. By the late 1980s, the world was witnessing a massive "green rush" as new laboratory techniques allowed for more rapid screening of plants to discover improved medicines, crops, and industrial chemicals. This quest for new chemicals from plants became known as "biodiversity prospecting" or "bioprospecting" when a group of biologists and policy makers—including Walter Reid, Sarah A. Laird, and Calestous Juma— promoted the use of the terms in 1991 in an argument for sustainable development. For environmentalists, the story of periwinkle suggested both the danger and promise of harvesting rare plants for corporate gain. Laird, an early proponent of biodiversity prospecting, worked for the Periwinkle Project, a division of the Rainforest Alliance established in New York City. Concerned that the "next periwinkle" might be destroyed by development, Laird hoped to build awareness around the drug industry's reliance on plant-based chemicals. Using WHO estimates, she claimed that 80 percent of the world's population used traditional plant-based medicines, and that the rainforests held over 70 percent of all the globe's plant biodiversity. Over and over went the refrain: "Lifesaving medicinal properties are found in the plants of the Madagascar rainforest. Extractions from the leaves of a rosy periwinkle have been used to find a cure for childhood leukemia, and now, due to a drug developed from these extracts, we have about a 50 percent recovery rate from childhood leukemia."

Ironically, periwinkle in Madagascar grew along the roads and in fields—not in threatened forests. In fact, many of the medicinal plants people have come to use in herbal remedies grew near farms; the toxicity of the valuable phytochemicals that give them medicinal power allowed them to subsist as weeds, not rare species. In our conversations, the Malagasy conservationist Jean Joseph Andriamanalintsoa promptly reminded me of periwinkle's status as a field plant, as did other scientists involved environmental efforts in Tolagnaro and Ranopiso, where Lilly once sourced periwinkle harvests. I timed my visit to Southern Madagascar to coincide with periwinkle's blooming cycle; I was overwhelmed to see the pink blossoms swaying in the breeze along every grassy highway and field. It was ubiquitous.

Other activists often retold the story of periwinkle as an argument for benefit sharing between disenfranchised communities and corporations holding valuable patents. Lawyers sought new models for acknowledging prior art in nonliterate societies. Rather than overturn patents, they hoped to extend profits or other rewards to people living in poverty who maintained ideas about the value of plants through oral communication and family apprenticeships. Yet, benefit sharing assumed a class of individuals to whom compensation might be afforded, ideally descendants of a First Peoples group in a threatened ecosystem. Moreover, the idea of indigenes with original and unique—albeit shared—communal knowledge still relied on the concept of priority so integral to the logic of patents for inventors. Controversies over the transformation of periwinkle and other plants into pharmaceuticals circulated around ideas about inventors and indigenes because each could claim to hold first rights to information.

For public health officials working in Africa more generally, the promise of turning green into gold trumped any environmental or legal controversies surrounding periwinkle and Lilly. In 2003, WHO officials in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, unveiled a new logo to rebrand traditional medical practices as a new engine for economic growth (see Figure 1.2). A gold ring encircled both the green continent of Africa, overlaid with a periwinkle flower, and the blue seas around it. The graphic designers behind this depiction of botanical and marine wealth did not include bones, shells, or other accoutrements of diagnosis in African healing, turning their gaze instead to periwinkle. For them, Eli Lilly's success with periwinkle suggested avenues for profitable drug discovery in African countries, not a rallying cry for retrospective benefit sharing or preservation of traditional communities.

And indeed, the little-known case of pennywort's transformation into Madécassol is an example of how scientists in African countries have created patented pharmaceuticals from plants. In this chapter, I reconsider popular understandings of the periwinkle case as one of biopiracy in light of Malagasy involvement in pennywort. In particular, the issue of priority was central to dilemmas surrounding both plants. Periwinkle and pennywort have long featured in folk recipes to cure various ailments, and these recipes inspired chemists to take the plants into the laboratory to test bioactivity. Periwinkle was a pantropical weed, whereas pennywort grew in Africa and Asia (see Figures 1.3 and 1.4). The wide distribution of both plants meant that there were arguably many, many claimants to the plants, their chemicals, and related knowledge.


Let us now turn to the history of priority within the history of traditional knowledge. Assuming we were to assign benefits to drug patents from plants along communal lines, what might have been the case for first rights to periwinkle and pennywort medications in Madagascar? And how might we prove rights to traditional knowledge claims within legal and intellectual frameworks that prioritize written knowledge? In the nineteenth century the German philosopher Georg Hegel infamously claimed that Africa had no historical consciousness because records of past events were not written down. Since then, several generations of Africanist historians have carefully documented oral traditions about past events, identified trends in historical linguistics, and examined archaeological remains to show that indeed Africans witnessed change over time. Similarly, are we to surmise that Africa had no science or innovation in medicinal plants research because little of it was recorded in textual form?

Madagascar's strongest claims to periwinkle were botanical and gene tic, as the plant most likely originated on the island-nation. Lilly claimed that the recipes it garnered were from the Philippines and for diabetes; thus the novelty of their invention related to both the form of the drug and its claims to efficacy—specifically, Lilly's use of extracts to treat cancer. The U.S. Patent Office's grounds for novelty required that no one else had published the process to extract the alkaloids or had made the same claims about their uses. Within this legal framework, the argument for retrospective benefit sharing with Madagascar would be that Lilly's recipes from the Philippines had actually originated in Madagascar. However, I soon realized that it was literally impossible to trace how herbal recipes might have spread, given the paucity of written documentation and the pantropical distribution of this common weed.

Instead, my research—taking me to sites as far-flung as markets in the capital city of Antananarivo, farms near the southern port towns of Tolagnaro and Ranopiso, herbaria at the U.K. Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the economic botany collection at Harvard—convinced me of the global history of this plant so deeply associated with Madagascar. And even when my search for periwinkle led me to pennywort, a plant that many scientists and healers in Madagascar also claimed as their own, I found a similar story. Again, traces of evidence hinted at another global history of ownership and innovation, from Ancient Sanskrit herbals to cups of Centella tea, to forgotten letters between scientist in Madagascar, India, France, and the United States. The process of turning plants into pharmaceuticals is never straightforward but instead requires the efforts of multiple participants.

Periwinkle in Madagascar

Madagascar's unique ecosystems led to the evolution of species of plants available only on the island. Of 13,000 plant species found there, four in five are endemic to Madagascar. Although many plants and animals are unique to the island, recurring waves of migrants led to an ethnically hybridized society drawing from multiple continents. Madagascar is usually considered part of Africa, although the people who live there today trace their ancestry not only to such countries as Kenya and Mozambique in East and Southern Africa but also to the Middle East. In addition, there is a strong influence from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, with large waves of Austronesian migrants traveling by boat to settle in Madagascar beginning in the first century before the Common Era. From 1890 to 1960, Madagascar was a colony of France. Today the official languages are French and Malagasy, a language derived from Austronesian, Swahili, and Arabic words that was reduced to written script from the 1500s. Two major ethnic divisions include the Merina, who trace their ancestry to Indonesia and reside primarily in the plateau near Antananarivo, and coastal communities of the Fianarantsoa, often of primarily continental African descent. Merina royals famously consolidated authority over the island by the mid-nineteenth century and resisted French colonization.

There are more species of periwinkle plants in Madagascar than elsewhere, indicating that periwinkle originated on the island and developed over time. Of the eight species of Catharanthus, seven are indigenous to different regions of Madagascar, with one unique to India. The genus also secured several different names over time, including Vinca, the name for European periwinkles that are similar in appearance, and Lochnera. Herbarium specimens stored around the world, dating to the 1770s, were riddled with the comments of botanists debating the differences among species. By the 1970s, several of the species had combined or hybridized in the national botanical gardens at Tsimbazaza Park in Antananarivo, including C. longifolius and C. roseus. Research there was critical to wider understandings of the different species of periwinkle and their varying levels of chemical activity. In particular, before 1975, confusion had surrounded the species C. trichophyllus, C. ovalis, and C. longifolius.

Malagasy citizens nurtured continuous cultural uses of periwinkle, providing a contemporary window onto exchange of uses over time. During my visit to Analakely market stalls in 2008, a mpivarotra-hazo (plant seller) named Hantalalao Razaiarimanga explained, "Rich people buy from us because they eat good and fatty food, so they want to clean their insides with plants. Poor people come here, too, as well as foreigners like you." She explained that vonenina (periwinkle) could be thought of as wet (fresh) or dry and was extremely bitter unless boiled. Razaiarimanana's hair was smoothed into a neat ponytail, and she rested her hands in the pockets of a beige smock tied over her jeans. She explained that she had learned to sell plants from her own mother, and now her two young children sometimes joined her at the stall she had rented for a decade. Nearby, another mpivarotra-hazo explained that periwinkle was further divided into its parts—roots and leaves—each having different curing properties. She explained that the long, brown, carrotlike roots, for instance, were especially good to digest for a stomachache.

Excerpted from BITTER ROOTS by Abena Dove Osseo-Asare. Copyright © 2014 Abena Dove Osseo-Asare. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Abena Dove Osseo-Asare is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.

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