5 Mar

Geographical Review: “God’s Healing Leaves: The Colonial Quest for Medicinal Plants in the Torrid Zone.”

Author Name:  Robert Voeks


What is the main purpose of your study?
Colonial European explorers, settlers, and clergy confronted a barrage of new diseases in tropical Asia, Africa, and the Americas. They soon discovered, however, that their time-honored pharmacopoeia of healing plants was largely ineffective against these new ailments. This article investigates the prevailing nature-society theories of the time that governed their efforts to uncover the healing secrets held by tropical lands and peoples.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study?
There is considerable suspicion in the developing world in regards to recent bioprospecting efforts by Western scientists. Much of this is due to the idea that wildly valuable drugs are being developed by Western pharmaceutical companies, with little or no compensation to source countries and communities. This research suggests, however, that deeply entrenched negative attitudes towards foreign bioprospecting have its roots in the exploitive actions of colonial European physicians and scientists.

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
Nearly all historical scholarship on colonial health and healing focuses on one region and time period. This study attempts to be more global in extent, drawing on some of the most important early documentation of plants and people coming out of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?
The quest for healing plants in the tropics was guided by mostly Christian inspired ideas on the relation between nature and society.
A benevolent God had placed botanical cures for all diseases near the place of origin of the disease.
The Creator has given a signature to each healing plant—leaf shape, color of latex, etc.—to aid people in their efforts to find new cures.
According to the Christian-inspired Great Chain of Being, knowledge of nature decreased along a gradient from animals, to primitive people, and finally to culturally-superior European men.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?
The creation of environmental narratives has become a common and accepted means of translating complex science into coherent and easily understood stories. This study provides an example of how an environmental destruction narrative—the extinction of life-giving cinchona trees—was deployed to deprive Peru and Bolivia of a precious endemic resource, as well as the indigenous people of this region of their intellectual property.

How does your research help us think about Geography?
Tropical landscapes have always represented in the Western imagination more myth and metaphor than geographical reality. This research reveals some of the early European people-plant axioms that served to underpin the Western cultural construction of ‘the tropics.’


Click Here to read the abstract for this article on the the Wiley Online Library.

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