Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.
The London Metro reported yesterday how scientists have just given the green light for a Polynesian pepper shrub/vine – Piper methysticum - and that it does have properties that can be used medicinally to help deal with anxiety problems.
Well good for science to confirm this, but the back story includes that Sydney Parkinson the artist on Captain Cook’s first voyage in the Endeavour (1769) was one of the first people to ever record the ethnographic use of the past. Polynesians chewed the leaves into a pulp and ate the brew to get intoxicated (Parkinson a tee-total Quaker disapproved, but also noted that at that time the Polynesians really disliked the alcohol the crew offered them). Much of the society drank the Kava Kava (‘Ava ‘Ava) brew to chill – its anxiety alleviation being pretty obvious!
Roll on 50 years and the Presbyterian missionaries had got their hold on the islanders – converting them to Christianity and banning the Kava Kava brew. Charles Darwin in the Beagle Narratives of 1831-6 records with satisfaction how their good work has led to the eradication of the plant over most of Tahiti, but it could still be found on remote volcanic heights (I recorded it there in 2003).
Of course other plants in this pepper genus have similar properties. For example, the Savunese people in Indonesia pulp the fruit of a related species with Betel nut to make the red chewing-paste which many of the old people use as a mild smooth (they do not report any euphoric effects but an sense of calm and wellbeing – so science confirms what a whole people have known since time immemorial, Interestingly today the Savunese culture - a mixture of ancient animism and modern Lutheran Christianity - is being suppressed today – by the majority Muslim Indonesian State which do not allow their language to be taught in schools etc.
What has this to do with the International Year of Biodiversity, well two obvious points; we should be carefully preserving indigenous knowledge rather than destroying it.
We should also be respecting this knowledge alongside science - and that means thinking how these peoples get a share of the benefits of biodiversity when it is exploited by modern drugs companies. These people have been custodians of that knowledge for hundreds, if not thousands of years.