Ethnobotany is not the only avenue for new drug discovery, nor the only source of models for conservation, but the body of knowledge it represents is founded on long-term experience with both subjects. The divisions created by expanding economies and advancing technologies have served to separate the demand for natural products or traditional knowledge from the protection of their sources. There is still so little known about biological diversity and the chemical activity it contains, hence random or rational screening will continue to uncover new species and new compounds. For the same reason, the magnitude of what remains unknown, scientists will continue to improve our understanding of the biological requirements of individual species; but responding to complex social and biological issues, such as those presented by new drug development, must incorporate multiple approaches.
Recent events and issues such as the UNCED conference, the controversy over the transfer of germplasm across international borders, new initiatives in pharmaceutical development and manufacture, the debate over intellectual property rights and the assignment of royalties have all helped focus global attention on the balance between the conservation of biological diversity and economic development. As stated previously, it is not a coincidence that the areas of greatest biological diversity are most often home to endangered indigenous cultures. These traditional links between people, habitats and the species they contain have served to transmit information and protect species for thousands of years. We may not have the luxury of time to re-establish the neurological effects of arrow poisons or the timing for harvesting medicinal roots that encourages regeneration, but it is critical to find new avenues for utilizing and valuing this body of knowledge.
A glance at the strategies used in both commercial and academic drug discovery programs indicate that, in the past decade, the ethno-directed approach is occupying an expanding niche in the field of new drug development. The discovery of new applications and new compounds from traditional medicine has the potential to elevate the recognition of the value of that diversity in the global markets; but to preserve the possibility of new options and continued expansion we need to reach for new levels of informed management of biological resources (Wilson, 1990). Far from being outdated or irrelevant to the search for valuable natural compounds, the field of ethnobotany continues to offer invaluable experience with both useful plants and the management of natural resources, and can contribute significantly to the creation of effective conservation initiatives in both indigenous and industrial cultures.
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The value of plant-generated information in pharmaceuticals
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