Tag Archives: decolonisation

Will herbal medicine provide a cure for COVID-19?

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COVID Organics, the miracle ‘cure’ for COVID19. Original source of photo unknown.

As the pandemic spread around the world, the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, made a startling announcement. He launched a new drink, COVID-Organics,  developed by Malagasy scientists, which was purported to cure the new disease. The evidence of its efficacy was slight, but the basis behind it was linked to a history of local herbal lore and an existing treatment for malaria*, combined with an association with a modern-style research institute.

Already several African states, including Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau and Congo-Brazzaville, have invested scarce resources on importing the new treatment, and it’s being rolled out across Madagascar, some of which is at national expense. It’s easy to understand why. Western medicines are often unaffordable at the best of times, and in the international scramble for resources they are now simply out of reach. COVID Organics is available on the doorstep. Moreover, there is a strong desire to support native expertise, despite most international scientists advising caution in the absence of any reliable evidence. Every society looks to its own authority figures for hope and guidance. We shouldn’t criticise desperate people for trying whatever remedy is actually available.

The claim of a wonder treatment was however met with scepticism from medical experts. President Rajoelina has hit out at critics from the Global North, accusing them of a condescending attitude towards African expertise. At the same time there is a reluctance by many to openly dismiss a treatment that has been promoted as an indigenous African solution drawn from a respected tradition. Even the WHO did so only obliquely.

I am on record as being strongly in favour of recognising and valuing alternative approaches to the development of knowledge beyond the frequently colonial attitudes we are responsible for perpetuating. In this case, however, I’m not inclined to mince my words. COVID-Organics on its own will probably do no harm, but there’s very little chance that it will do any good. By all means test it like any other potential drug, but its provenance doesn’t make it any more plausible as a candidate treatment. And if it takes the place of known, genuinely effective interventions (social distancing, hand washing etc.), or wastes money that could be spent on proven medical care, then it will become positively dangerous to health.

Why am I so sceptical? Those who advocate herbal medicine as an alternative to conventional treatment usually follow one of two lines of argument in support. The first is that it is an ancient practice, based on thousands of years of development, and that this long duration has ensured the transmission of only the most effective cures.

It’s easy to pick this apart. Firstly, the foundations of herbal medicine were derived from theoretical grounds which we now know to have been fundamentally flawed. In its Western form these include the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that God indicated the medical uses of plants through their physical characteristics, or treating symptoms as manifestations of the four humours. Such methods of identifying possible plants and matching them to conditions is little better than random. We shouldn’t expect paradigms that predate germ theory to stumble on insights into a novel threat.

Second, herbalists will often advocate their art by picking out those remedies which have gone on to be important medical drugs. It’s a classic case of the prosecutor’s dilemma; a number of effective treatments have come from plants, but not all medical plants are effective. One which is usually rolled out is the Madagascar periwinkle, which gave rise to a lucrative pharmaceutical used to treat a common form of childhood leukemia. This is however completely unrelated to its traditional usage as a largely ineffective treatment for diabetes. That it yielded such a valuable modern drug owes as much to serendipity as herbal medicine.

Finally, the legend that tropical forests contain a fabled pharmacopeia whose secrets are held by traditional healers has been comprehensively demolished by prolonged enquiry. The story remains persistent because of its connection to a number of beloved folk images rather than any basis in evidence. We have probably taken all the low-hanging medical fruit from the plant kingdom already. A forest-dwelling shaman won’t solve our new problem, not least because remote tribal people live at such low densities that they tend not to suffer from contagious viruses.

Should we instead be scouring the plant kingdom for potential COVID cures? To do so would almost certainly be a waste of time and resources. Not that I’m sure some unscrupulous or naive researchers are putting in grant applications to do exactly that right now. Note that most major pharmaceutical companies gave up on this approach to drug research many years ago after wasting spectacular sums in the process. If it worked then Big Pharma would be doing it already for the diseases we already have.

OK, you might ask, but what if one of these herbal cures turned out to actually work? Medical plants contain a vast number of chemicals. Identifying, purifying and testing the active ingredients is a long process. Sometimes physiological effects rely on complex interactions with other constituents which mean that the individual chemicals don’t act quite the same in isolation. Controlled dosages of herbal medicines are almost impossible to achieve. And there is a high risk that one or other component will be allergenic or otherwise harmful. Demonstrating efficacy and comprehensive safety of a botanical treatment is therefore much harder than for any single component drug.

To summarise, it is possible that herbal medicine might eventually lead to a cure for COVID-19, but it is much less likely to do so than conventional scientific approaches. Even if a cure does eventually arrive through the herbal route, it will take much longer, likely many years, and the lack of any precedents in the modern era is not encouraging. We haven’t found a herbal cure for any other virus yet, and not for want of trying. Maybe Madagascar really has stumbled on the solution to the world’s greatest current problem. Until we have some solid evidence, however, I wouldn’t bet on it. We are all desperate for a cure to appear but wasting time and scarce resources on dead ends will ultimately cost lives.

 


 

* Is it coincidence that both the presidents of Madagascar and the United States have promoted the use of treatments for malaria, a fever caused by parasitic infection, as supposed cures for an entirely unrelated virus?

 

The bitter tree

Like many ecologists I have a fascination with the scientific names that attach themselves to species. Sometimes these celebrate the person who discovered or described the species*, or a benefactor, or are made as a tribute to a notable person. One that I recently stumbled across is the South American tree Quassia amara, a common understorey species of disturbed lowland forests. Until I encountered the backstory to its name while reading The Ethnobotany of Eden (which I strongly recommend) I had no idea where its name came from. The story is complex and revealing.

The tree is one of a relatively small proportion of tropical species which owes their name to Linnaeus, indicating that its significance was recognised early in the development of modern taxonomy. That a Swedish botanist came to hold a sample is due to its potential as a remedy for fevers, a serious concern of the European powers whose hold over tropical lands was still tenuous while their colonists struggled with malaria and other unfamiliar afflictions.

The tree’s Latin name celebrates the man who introduced the plant to Europeans as a medicine, the freed slave Graman Quassi (c.1690–1787), originally of the Akan people of West Africa from modern-day Ghana, hence his Kwa name Kwasimukámba which I will use in preference here. He arrived in Suriname as a child slave of the Dutch empire. So successful was Kwasimukámba that he not only lived an unusually long and ultimately comfortable life but was also celebrated internationally. He even travelled to The Hague and received an audience with Willem V, the Prince of Orange, who bestowed a number of extravagant gifts on him in recognition of his service to the empire.

If we ended the story here then it would be almost heart-warming. But let’s delve deeper. How did Kwasimukámba come to be a freed slave?

Many other slaves escaped from servitude in South America and formed independent communities, known as the maroons, often deep into colonised territories. Some of these became well-established enough to effectively become trade partners of the European powers and were tolerated. Others, such as the Saramaka, fought lengthy insurgencies before eventually winning this recognition. It was in this struggle that Kwasimukámba first demonstrated his worth to the Dutch, acting as a negotiator and tracker on behalf of the white colonists. Later he led a corps of African conscripts known as the Black Rangers, even losing one of his ears in the fighting against the rebels. For his efforts he was gifted a gold breastplate on which was inscribed ‘Quassie, faithful to the whites’. The Saramaka remember him as a traitor.

What then of the tree that bears his name? It was Kwasimukámba who introduced it to Europeans as a local remedy for fever in his other noted capacity as a herbalist and sorceror**. It was soon overtaken as a cure for malaria by Cinchona, another South American tree and the source of quinine. Nevertheless, Quassia amara is still used as an effective treatment for intestinal parasites, an insecticide, and a bittering agent in foods and drinks. The second part of the species name, amara, comes from the Spanish word meaning ‘bitter’. Even here Kwasimukámba is memorialised because the most bitter of the tree’s chemical constituents is now known as quassin, one of a family of chemicals called the quassinoids. These are amongst the most bitter-tasting chemicals in nature and form ingredients of Angostura bitters***.

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Flowers of Quassia amara. All parts of the plant can be used for their extracts.

Without wishing to be unfair to Kwasimukámba, whose reputation as a healer cannot be entirely unfounded, it is highly unlikely that he personally discovered the medicinal benefits of Quassia. More likely is that he learnt of its efficacy through his interactions with the Saramaka or other maroons. They, in turn, are likely to have acquired the knowledge from the indigenous peoples they encountered in the forests. My scepticism about who deserves the credit is simply based on a matter of probability. Native healers had been using the tree for many generations before the African slaves and their European masters arrived, and continue to do so.

We will never know who first named the bitter tree and divined its useful medicinal properties. In a fair accounting of history they would receive the credit for Quassia, although Kwasimukámba deserves his recognition too. He can hardly be blamed for the accolade of being immortalised in science as the tree was named for, not by, him. Then again, in his later years he styled himself ‘Professor of Herbology’, so he was not averse to personal aggrandisement.

So who was Kwasimukámba: a manumitted slave who achieved fame in his lifetime? An imperial collaborator? A talented herbalist? Or a charlatan who took credit for the insights of others? The truth must be all of those things, and no single story is complete without the rest. We should beware making moral judgements on our forebears, as I’ve argued before, because these were complex people making personal decisions in very different times. The name Quassia links a bitter-flavoured tree to a bitter history, one that invokes slavery, oppression, forgotten indigenous peoples and the legacies of colonialism. The struggles of the Saramaka for recognition of their rights continue to the present day. Perhaps we shouldn’t resent Kwasimukámba his place in the annals of science though. At least this once an oppressed slave managed to make a decent life for himself. I can raise a glass to that.

 


 

* Which usually means the first person from the Global North to place the species in the context of a largely imperial system of classification. That a species was long known to local people in its place of origin is usually overlooked, although taxonomists are getting better at this.

** Not all of his concoctions were as widely approved of.

*** Amusingly Angostura bitters do not contain the bitter-tasting bark of Angostura trifoliata, but are instead named after the town in Venezuela from where the recipe originated. I should write another blog post about that.

Decolonise biogeography!

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Arthur Sinclair in Peru. This image is taken from a fundraising page set up by his great-grandson, the writer Iain Sinclair, who is currently writing a book and producing a podcast series based on his attempts to retrace the original expedition.

Arthur Sinclair was a Scottish explorer and geographer whose most influential commission was his 1890 survey of half a million square miles of interior Peru produced on behalf of the Peruvian Corporation of London. In his report* he expresses limited sympathy for the indigenous inhabitants of this vast wilderness:

Poor Chuncho! The time seems to be approaching when, in vulgar parlance, you must take a back seat; but it must be acknowledged you have had a long lease of those magnificent lands, and done very little with them… The world, indeed, has been made neither better nor richer by your existence, and now the space you occupy — or rather wander in — to so little purpose, is required, and the wealth of vegetation too long allowed to run waste, must be turned to some useful account.

Modern readers with our current sensibilities will gasp at the patronising imperialism embedded in these words. Anyone with an awareness of the subsequent consequences for the people who once lived in and depended on these forests, not to mention the damage to the forests themselves, will be appalled that devastating change was proposed with such casual insouciance.

Attitudes of this nature were widespread among the imperial powers. I don’t mean to pick on Sinclair as a particularly egregious example because he wasn’t. My choice of this passage is solely due to the coincidence of having come across it recently, but I could have chosen from many; some now notorious, others obscure but nonetheless consequential at the time they were written. For example, Sinclair’s explorations took place at the same time as Joseph Conrad was embarking on his own travels into the Congo basin**.

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The Peruvian railway system was a triumph of colonial engineering which opened the interior of the country for trade and resource extraction. Photo by David Gubler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For all we might be appalled by the opinions of our predecessors, and strongly disavow them now, as biogeographers we must face up to the fact that our field arose first and foremost as an exercise in colonialism. Its raisin d’etre was to describe, delineate and evaluate the natural wealth of foreign lands for the benefit of colonial powers. We remain complicit while our institutions continue to memorialise and celebrate our forebears, often in buildings paid for by the proceeds of slavery, extraction of resources and appropriation of land. It’s not sufficient to say that we know better now when the advantages we accumulated through colonialism reinforce persistent inequalities.

In our new paper*** we draw attention to this ongoing problem. Ironically human geographers are acutely aware of the need to engage with colonial legacies, while the physical and biogeographers with whom they often share buildings typically assume that such concerns do not apply to them. This position cannot be defended.

One way in which this applies is in the distribution of biogeographical researchers. We extracted the institutional addresses of over 7000 authors of papers in the three leading journals of biogeography over a five year period, and show that only 11% of them are based in the tropics. Over 5000 of them are in the northern hemisphere, mostly in what we consider Global North countries.

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Distribution of all authors contributing to papers in the three main international journals of biogeography over a five year period (2014–2018). Figure 1 in Eichhorn et al. (2020).

There are lots of forces underlying this pattern, but they all act to reinforce the dominance of Global North institutions. I don’t doubt that it would be similar for many other academic fields; this however only demonstrates how pervasive the problem is.

Meanwhile, the predominant flow of information (as data and records) is from Global South countries towards these centres of influence. The main databases which compile global biogeographical records are based in Europe, North America or Australia, and are maintained by researchers based in those countries. Is this harvesting of data any different in its dynamics to that of colonial resources?

Another issue is that, mostly subconsciously, the way that studies from Global North countries are described and framed differs from those published elsewhere. In a brilliant study published last year, Ergin & Alkan parse the signal of academic neo-colonialism in the language used by authors. Global North scholars write from a perspective of supposedly impartial generality, while southern scholars include geographical indicators that reinforce their position as producing localised case studies or applications.

This is an insidious effect, and easily deniable until pointed out. When one of the reviewers questioned this, it took me only a few moments to identify a number of papers from Wytham Woods (a study site in Oxfordshire) with titles that gave no hint of their origins, and purport to make broad ecological statements. Would a paper from the Rwenzoris in Rwanda be written, accepted and published with the same level of detached abstraction? I severely doubt it.

What can we do? On recognising the problem our collective responsibility is to reverse the trend. This depends on the behaviours of individuals and research groups. Capacity building, proper recognition of collaborators and support for research agendas from beyond the Global North are all part of the process. Opening up biogeography also means enabling researchers from across the world to not only have access to repositories of data, but to develop and host their own. And when we write, we should learn from the humanities and recognise how our positionality inflects the way we view and describe the world around us.

Achieving these things is not merely an act of contrition for past injustices; opening up the field will increase the diversity of insights and validity of our findings, making  biogeography into a truly global science. We need to decolonise biogeography.

 


* I obtained this excerpt from the travel diary of his ancestor Iain Sinclair, who is no apologist for his great-grandfather. He also has a blog serialising his attempts to retrace the path of the Peru expedition.

** Please don’t send me comments along the lines of how Heart of Darkness is a classic of world literature. It is both a classic work and appallingly racist.

*** Thanks to my brilliant coauthors Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths who continue to teach, inspire and provoke me with their insights.

 

Writing about writing about decolonisation

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Three privileged white men displaying the normal range of responses to calls for decolonisation of science. Still from 90s classic sitcom Friends.

Who gets to make the case for decolonisation in the sciences? One of the anticipated reactions to our recent paper on decolonising field ecology (written with Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths*, and summarised in this blog post) was that we’re just three white Europeans. What right do we have to comment? Aren’t we part of the problem?

The answer is that yes, we are the problem, and that’s why it’s our responsibility to draw attention to it. Dismissing our argument because we come from a position of privilege is like disputing evidence of a crime wave because you’ve only heard about it from the police. Why aren’t the victims making a fuss? Researchers from developing countries don’t have the same platform. We know that. We’re using our platform to make exactly that point.

Another way of phrasing the critique is: “We like what you have to say, we’d just rather it was being said by someone else.” At best this derives from an assumption that we are stealing attention which should be directed towards academics from developing countries. To which I can only agree, and point out that our main message is to point away and shout “Look over there!” We haven’t silenced or excluded anyone. If our paper opens up space for others to be heard then we will have achieved one of our goals.

We freely acknowledge that our line of argument isn’t novel; the whole point of the paper is to draw attention to how a movement originating in the social sciences hasn’t penetrated far in ecology. There have been powerful statements made in the past, some of which we cite, but it’s fair to say that their impact has been limited. Many appeared as magazine articles or were published in non-science fields, which means that a majority of researchers in ecology will simply never encounter them unless they deliberately go looking. We have instead placed a commentary in the principal journal of tropical ecology, a publication which mostly features conventional scientific papers, which is much harder to ignore.

Was it easier for us to do publish this paper than it would be for others? Yes, without a doubt. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. We gained our current positions through structural inequalities, but the system will only change if those in control of it make an effort to do so. We aren’t demanding action from scientists in developing countries, although we strongly advocate listening to them. The walls aren’t going to fall down just because someone’s shouting outside. We need to start dismantling them ourselves.

At its worst, criticising the profile of the authors instead of the message is a means of deflecting responsibility to act. Throughout history, most movements for social justice have foundered at some stage because those in positions of authority grumble that no-one affected has complained to them directly. It always takes calls from within the establishment to provoke a response.

Also, who’s asking? If your response to the paper is that you agree with the message, but that we’re not the right people to be saying it, then who is? Who gets to judge? This turns out to be another means by which established authorities control participation in discourse. I will gladly accept, and try to learn from, any criticism from those adversely affected by the colonial aspects of science. It’s notable that all the push-back I’ve had so far is from other white people complaining that white people are telling them what to do.

We have been asked why we didn’t invite a developing world author onto the paper. This is a source of regret to us as well, but we didn’t have one. The paper arose out of direct discussions between the authors which took place in the UK and determined the message and outline. Approaching someone post-hoc and asking them to stick their name on a manuscript would have been the worst form of patronising tokenism, merely serving to insulate ourselves from criticism rather than being genuinely inclusive. So no, we didn’t do that. Of course it would have been best of all to have incorporated a broad panel of authors from the start, but it would also be disingenuous to pretend that this happened. To criticise the paper on these grounds is once again dodging the message to score a moral point. I too wish that science was more inclusive and fully collaborative; that’s one of the points we’re making.

Finally, I’m happy to accept that I am not the right person to lead by example. My encounter with the decolonisation literature has come through an awareness and confession of past mistakes, most of which were made through arrogance and ignorance. By all means criticise me for what I’ve done wrong — I’m comfortable with my errors being used as instructive examples. I’m also stumbling into a new field and likely to make further blunders. This will be an iterative process and one I’m entering into with some trepidation. But I firmly believe that this is a necessary direction and hope that others will join us.


* None of my thoughts in this blog post are original; I’ve learnt everything from discussions with the other authors.

Where are the African ecologists in Wytham Woods?

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Are Wytham Woods really that special? Photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxox/509238022

*** See end for updates and responses ***

Calls have been growing across many academic fields for the necessity of decolonising science, both as a means of addressing the legacy of imperialism and broadening the scope and inclusivity of the collective human endeavour. Yet these discussions have been slow to take root in ecology. Many ecologists complacently assume that they are above this — we work with international collaborators in countries around the world, often living and working alongside local scientists with whom we interact with as equals (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves). Can we shrug off this latest movement as the well-meaning but unnecessary moaning of pious social scientists?

No. And this ought to be glaringly obvious.

Those of us who work in the tropics are all familiar with the classic study sites: Barro Colorado Island in Panama, La Selva in Costa Rica, Danum Valley in Malaysia… the list could go on. What unites all these sites is that they were usually established, and are often still run, by white scientists from First World countries (mainly Europe, North America and Australia). They are visited by streams of researchers and students from these First World countries. While the field centres are staffed by locals and include local scientists in their research programs, the funding to support them comes primarily from overseas.

Many ecology programs in First World universities include a glamorous field trip to an exotic location where our students can learn about applied conservation. They travel to Africa, South America or Southeast Asia and spend a few weeks visiting field sites which have been made famous through the published work of mainly white First World scientists, sometimes their own instructors. Often these field courses employ local teachers and guides, but they are based at local institutions. Locals are there to support the visiting experts, not to be celebrated for their own local research programs.

We have our classic field sites in the First World too. But how many visitors from the developing world come to see them? Why are there no Africans in Wytham Woods, studying the dynamics of a temperate woodland? Where are the Brazilians in Hubbard Brook? How many Indonesian scientists make a pilgrimage to see the Daintree Forest in Australia?*

There is one obvious reason why developing world scientists don’t visit these sites for research: money. Yet this is not an insuperable barrier. If we genuinely cared about developing international science, and believed that our cherished major study sites were of international importance, then we could find a way. In the same way as a British forester could develop sufficient expertise to interpret a study site in Africa, surely a Ugandan forester would be able to shed some light on what’s happening in a forest in Oxfordshire. Has anyone thought to ask?

More important is that they probably don’t care. Our favoured locations are much less interesting than we would like to believe, and have little to say to scientists in other countries. The one-way flow of assumed expertise and insight is a glaring failure in the way our entire field operates. In short, we need to decolonise ecology.

In a new paper in Biotropica we draw attention to this problem and suggest three responsibilities that researchers from the developed world need to accept as part of a moral imperative to decolonise our field.**

The first is a recognition of objectivity; ecologists from the Global North bring a set of priorities, paradigms and assumptions that are not always shared by the people living in the countries in which we work. The solution is not to indoctrinate the locals in our way of thinking, but to learn what their own perspectives are, and fully incorporate them in our research programs.

Secondly, we can stop calling our field sites ‘remote’ just because they require a long plane flight to reach and are found in places without reliable running water. To many people they are simply ‘home’. We should recognise and respect their expertise, even though it is exhibited in different ways from our own. If we genuinely wish to support local people then we should seek to arrive as supporting collaborators in achieving their goals, not solely ours. That would be truly impactful research.

Finally, we should start reflecting on our own background and how it inflects our conduct as researchers. Positionality statements are a common starting point in the humanities literature but remain very rare in science. This isn’t just a tick-box exercise for which we need to find an appropriately contrite form of words before carrying on as before. We need to acknowledge that the neutral scientific voice is a myth, one which disguises our own agency while writing out the contributions of others, particularly the locals we rely upon. We need to reflect on and state our potential biases in the same way as we would expect a declaration of conflict of interest or funding sources.

None of these prescriptions are inherently difficult, it’s just that the structures of modern science do not currently provide incentives for achieving them. But we created the structures of science. It’s our responsibility to change them.

 


 

UPDATE (22 May): there’s been a lot of commentary on Twitter about this post but no-one has followed through by commenting on the blog itself. Instead I’ll summarise some of the objections and my responses.

A few people were upset by the original title, which turns out not to be strictly accurate (although this was anticipated this in the footnotes). It has been amended slightly but due to WordPress defaults it’s impossible to change the link title without deleting the entire post. I had no intention of ignoring or writing out the contributions of scientists from the Global South to our understanding of Wytham, of which I was unaware. These deserve recognition:

To which I can only say brilliant, and I hope his work gets published. Another one here:

This is great news, and I hope the program is successful and leads to papers. Few people have done more for capacity-building in developing countries than Yadvinder Mahli, and I’m very happy to be proven wrong. We do need much more of this.

Finally, however, this:

I hope this helps clarify where I’m coming from. It wasn’t my intention to single out Wytham Woods for special criticism (#WythamSoWhite) but rather use it to make a general point. I could have chosen to illustrate it using almost any of the classic temperate field sites. Sadly a few exceptions, which I’m still glad to have learnt about, don’t negate the overall story.


This is an updated version of an article I wrote for a newsletter a few years ago. My thinking has been greatly refined through discussions with Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths, my coauthors on our paper in Biotropica.

* To anyone reading and planning a comment saying “I took some African ecologists to Wytham, look, here’s a photo”, please stop and think about whether that either invalidates or reinforces my argument.

** In case you’re wondering how three white Europeans feel that they have a right to weigh in on this, then another blog post on this will follow, but briefly: in cases of inequality, it’s the responsibility of those in a position of privilege to take action, not to wait for someone with less of a platform to tell them that they need to.