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Medicinal Plants: Who “owns” sacred plant material?


Hermine Vogel, our guide and the director of CENATIV at the University of Talca.

Today we arose, much like every other morning, hastily and with excited anticipation, this time in the city of Talca. It was always an early American wake-up call for us, despite the fact that we always went to bed at a very Chilean hour (extremely late), but still we rallied, bright-eyed, ready for the sights and experiences of the day. We boarded the bus and headed to Panguilemo Research Farm just outside of the city — the only field station of its kind, run by the University of Talca. The farm hosts a variety of research projects, from poplar breeding for forestry experiments to viticulture trials. We met with our guide Hermine Vogel, faculty at the university and director of the CENATIV (Chilean Native Plant Center), and honed in on one specific project she has been working on for some time now: the breeding and propagation of a unique plant endemic to Chile, known by its common name as maqui. 

Maqui berries on one of the plants propagated by Vogel and her team at the Panguilemo Research Farm.

Maquiscientifically classified as Aristotelia chilensis in the family Elaeaocarpaceae, is a large, bushy shrub that is primarily defined by its production of small, deep purple berries. These berries are the prized feature of the plant, for they have been found to function as one of the strongest antioxidants known to natural medicine. The Mapuche people, a group indigenous to Chile, have been using maqui berries for centuries, both as a food product and a medicine. Its medicinal properties have recently come into consideration by Western science, and within the past couple decades use of maqui as an herbal remedy has become more mainstream. The berries possess a wealth of medically active chemistry, including anthocyanins and polyphenols, both which possess powerful antioxidative capacities. Because of this, maqui berries are presently being collected for commercial sale and exportation by herbal product distributors, as well as for research purposes by major drug companies attempting to isolate the active chemistry. Both of these endeavors are relying on wild collection of the fruit, a practice which, unsurprisingly, has allowed for a rapidly intensifying overharvest. In an effort to provide an alternative for drug companies and the global market, Vogel and her team are making efforts to breed and clearly define a protocol for commercially growing and propagating the maqui plant.

Vogel and her team began the project by taking cuttings and vegetatively propagating from 30 different Aristotelia chilensis plants found in the wild. They then selected the ten that displayed the most favorable characteristics for commercial growth, such as size of berry and production of the earliest fruits. The project continues in its current stage, which involves growing trials for these ten selected varieties, in order to determine which may be best for commercialized growth and berry harvest.

The Mapuche people have been internally working on their own breeding and propagation programs for maqui, and the ultimate goal from all parties is to protect the wild populations from unsustainable harvest. Despite this notion, there still exists some difficult questions. The exploitative nature of producing a sacred plant for a mass marketing campaign does not coexist harmoniously with the human-plant-medicine relationship that is cultivated in traditional use of the plant. Vogel has worked with the Mapuche in some capacity, offering assistance in the process of developing their own varieties, but there is one notable difference in ideology: the Mapuche have no desire to commercialize or sell their bred plant varieties. Whether this decision is based on the notion that they currently control most of the market in berry collection, or because they do not agree with sharing a sacred plant with an inevitably exploitative system, it is hard to tell.




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Biodiversity: How much is a lot?

It is relatively often (and with the slightest cringe) that I hear the phrase “rich in biodiversity” being arbitrarily used to describe some place, one usually regarded as “exotic” by the person speaking about it, that has a reputation for being filled with too many plant, animal, and fungal species to quantify in a conversationally reasonable way. There is wonder in their eyes and enthusiasm in their voice as they excitedly continue to tell me about the large, colossal, and simply overwhelming amount of biodiversity in this area! Wow! Much biodiversity! It’s… a whole awful lot!

I cringe not because I dislike hearing about wonderful new places – that are, in fact, rich in biodiversity – but because to a biologist, or anyone interested in and knowledgeable about ecosystems for that matter, this notion of being “rich in biodiversity” is neither specific nor meaningful. While I do appreciate being saved the drone of hearing off-hand statistical data about just how many species and of what kind are present in an area, I think that leaving this information out can lead to misconceptions in the quantification of organisms actually present in an area. Is it rich in biodiversity because there are hundreds of thousands of different types of organisms, or because there are comparable populations of these different types coexisting? If these two notions seem to be the same thing to you – please, drop the “rich in biodiversity” phrase, and read on.

There are two essential ways to measure biodiversity: species richness and species evenness. These measurements tell you two very different things. Species richness refers to how many different species are present in a given area, meaning that the more types of different organism present, the higher the species richness. Species evenness refers to the relative abundances of each of the species present. A community will have a high species evenness if the species are all present in relatively equal incidences. This is demonstrated in the graphic below.

Okay, so you’ve got that now, but why does it matter? It matter because they are elucidating two totally different ways to understanding an ecosystem. If there are hundreds of different types of organisms present, but one type has an exponentially larger population than all the others, we can learn important information about that organism’s role in the ecosystem. That is, it probably dominates the community since it seems to be outcompeting all of the other species in population size. Understanding species evenness and species richness can be crucial to understanding notions like this about ecosystems.

Still confused about really what differentiates species richness from species evenness? Hungry for even more information about the concepts? Check out this video!

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