Challenges to preserving herbal knowledge in Latin America

Much knowledge of medicinal plants is in danger of being lost because the traditions of the bearers of that knowledge are threatened. Traditional ways of life are hindered by forced relocation, pollution of soil and drinking water, and even assassinations of indigenous leaders and healers. One of the consequences is the extinction of certain languages, which contain a wealth of information about plants. What challenges do we face if we want to preserve that knowledge?

Maaike van Kregten. Tijdschrift voor Fytotherapie 2022 nr. 3.
Translations are by me: corrections are welcome!

The struggle of the indigenous people of Latin America to defend their lives, lands and cultures has existed since the first Europeans set foot on the continent in 1492. They protect their ancestral lands from companies that pollute them and cause erosion and loss of biodiversity. Resistance intensified again in the 1990s. During this period activists also began to warn about climate change and the environmental and climate movement joined them [1].

Neoliberal model
Latin American governments implemented neoliberal policies around the 1990s to deal with the consequences of the debt crisis in the 1980s. In order to obtain new loans, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demanded government withdrawal, privatization and cuts in the public sector through Structural Adjustment Programs. Transnational corporations were given total freedom, for example, those in extractive industries [1]. This hit indigenous and rural populations hard and led to a wave of protests, as it was often their ancestral land that was sold to corporations [1]. People were forcibly evicted from their land, such as the Mapuche in Argentina who had to make way for sheep for the Italian clothing brand Benneton [2].

Another example is Pascua Lama, a gold mine owned by the Canadian company Barrick Gold. It was finally closed by the Chilean government in 2020 after years of (inter)national actions due to damage to the environment and public health. The mine was located at an altitude of 4500 m in the Atacama region of the Andes, which is also the driest desert on earth. Among other things, the company caused damage to the glaciers and thus to the water supply of the (indigenous) communities that depend on it. However, due to the long duration of the lawsuits, glaciers have now been polluted [3].

Mapuche in Chile during a protest. The branch they are holding in their hands is the Canelo or Foye (Drimys winteri*). Rafael Railaf of Mapuche Foundation Folil tells the author of this article, “This is a very important and powerful medicinal tree in Mapuche culture. It symbolizes the pure, the good and peace and justice within the Mapuche community.”
For more information, see: (in particular, social media is updated regularly).
Photo: Migrar Photo. Via:

Action and response
Publicity around the above and other issues led to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 [4] and specifically for ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology, there has been the Nagoya Protocol since 2014 [5]. But not all agreements are equally well respected, and the response is increasingly grim.

In 2020, environmental activists worldwide were criminalized (20%) and faced physical violence (18%) and murder (13%). These percentages increase significantly when indigenous people are involved [6] and the problem is only growing. Global Witness indicates that 1540 land and environmental defenders were murdered worldwide between 2012 and 2020. Most of the executions took place in Latin America [7].

The murder of Honduran indigenous activist Berta Cáceres in 2016 has received much international attention [1], but most activists do not. To get a sense of who is involved and what is happening, Cultural Survival has created an overview for 2020 [8]. More often than not, it involves community and spiritual leaders and/or healers. One of the people often mentioned in this regard is Domingo Choc Che, a Maya Q’eqchi’ and traditional healer. He has been involved in several research projects to preserve traditional Maya knowledge. Michael Heinrich, head of and professor at the Center for Ethnopharmacology and Pharmacognosy at the UCL School of Pharmacy in London has also worked with him. In an interview with HerbalGram, Heinrich said the following, among other things:

This was in no way the first, nor will it be the last murder of this type. We need much more national and international recognition of the tremendous contributions of traditional knowledge holders and other people in local communities.” [9]

Climate Change
Now that climate change is no longer a prediction but a fact, other issues come into play in monitoring plant knowledge. Applequist et al. argue that in addition to the extinction of species due to climate change another aspect comes into play, namely its impact on the functioning of plants. Changing temperatures and precipitation patterns, disruption of symbiotic relationships, and increases in pests and pathogens can lead to changes in the chemical composition of plants. Drought stress, for example, often increases the concentration of secondary metabolites by causing either biomass to decrease or the production of these metabolites to increase. In the long run, these kinds of changes can cause the efficacy and safety of certain plants to change [10].

However, there have also been periods in the past when it was colder, wetter, or drier. So it is entirely possible that there are people who know how to respond to those changing conditions. After all, indigenous knowledge has been handed down orally for millennia. There is a problem, however: this historical plant knowledge, because of the oral tradition, is enclosed in language. And many indigenous languages are dying out.

Protest march in Santiago de Chile in 2018. The banner reads, ‘You don’t sell or rent the Mapuche territory, you take it back! No to the Plan Impulsa Araucania ‘.
Photo: David Meléndez. Via:

Factors such as assimilation of cultures, forced relocation, poverty, educational disadvantage, illiteracy, and other manifestations of discrimination, result in the loss of indigenous cultures and thus their languages [11]. This also has implications for plant knowledge. Indeed, there is a link between specific knowledge of plants and endangered languages [12]. More than 30% of the 7400 languages on the planet will have disappeared by the end of the century, according to the UN. Consequently, the UN has declared 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. The goal is to “draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages, and to take urgent action at the national and international levels” [13].

Right to exist
If the right to exist of people and their cultures is compromised, they may increasingly disappear and with them the knowledge they contain. Culture and language are closely linked, so that with the disappearance of cultures, the associated languages also disappear – and with them specific knowledge about medicinal plants. Unbridled and cheap consumption comes at the expense of the environment, of people and their cultures, and thus ultimately of (traditional) knowledge. In a time of new pandemics and antibiotics resistance, we may well be able to use this knowledge. Indigenous cultures desperately need our support, and we need them. Perhaps with our next purchase, we might first ask ourselves what might have preceded it all.

[1] Becker M, Stahler-Sholk R. Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics [Internet]. Oxford University Press; 2019 Aug 28. Via:
[2] Benetton VS Mapuche.; Geraadpleegd: 16-06-2022.
[3] MiningWatch. Chile ordenó cierre definitivo de minera canadiense Pascua Lama. 18 September 2020. Via: Geraadpleegd: 24-06-2022.

[4] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 2007.
[5] Nagoya protocol tekst:
[6] Scheidel A. et al. Environmental conflicts and defenders: A global overview. Global Environmental Change. Juli 2020;63:102104.
[7] Global Witness. Geraadpleegd: 20-06-2022.
[8] In Memoriam: Indigenous Human Rights Defenders Murdered in 2020 in Latin America
[9] Yearsley C. The murder of Maya healer Domingo Choc Che. HerbalGram 2020;128: 39-40. Geraadpleegd: 21-06-2022.
[10] Applequist WL. et al. Scientistsʼ warning on climate change and medicinal plants. Planta Med. 2020;86:10-18.
[11] United Nations Economic and Social Council. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Summary report on the International Year of Indigenous Languages. 2019; E/C.19/2020/9.
[12] Cámara-Leret R. et al. Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge. PNAS. 2021;118(24):e2103683118.
[13] UNESCO. Indigenous Languages Decade. Via: Geraadpleegd: 28-06-2022.