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Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

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Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

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Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for South Front

As reported previously, when the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the Pacific region of Colombia traditional healers decided to try a medicinal plant that has long been used to treat a range of viral infections against the latest viral infection. The results have been excellent, with the symptoms of infection in patients receding within days of commencing the treatment. However, although the existence of a possible cure for COVID has been widely known for over a year, and there are numerous healers who are prepared to participate in formal studies to investigate the effectiveness and limitations of the treatment method, no medical or scientific institutions, in Colombia or elsewhere, have been willing to accept the offer to initiate a series of scientific and clinical studies to confirm or disprove the effectiveness of the treatment. In contrast, health authorities in Thailand are investigating the effectiveness and limitations of a natural medicine which has given positive results as a treatment for COVID-19 and have incorporated the treatment into an integrated strategy to combat the pandemic in that country, increasing the health system’s capacity to respond to the crisis while at the same time providing a significant boost to rural development and employment.  

In previous reports, it has been noted that traditional healers in Colombia are confident that they have a very safe, low-risk treatment for COVID-19. The treatment, a natural remedy based on the leaves of a medicinal plant (Gliricidia sepium) that is used to treat a large variety of illnesses (particularly viral infections including Dengue, yellow fever and malaria) has been used by many people on the Pacific coast of Colombia since the pandemic arrived to the region last year.

For most of this year I have been collaborating with several medical practitioners and traditional healers in the Tumaco region who have been applying the treatment to COVID patients (both confirmed cases according to the ‘rapid test’, and people who showed the symptoms but did not take the rapid test to confirm infection). They assure me that in all the people they have treated (ambulatory patients), all the symptoms of COVID infection have receded almost immediately after the treatment process was initiated and the patients have fully recovered.

Numerous people have stated – that doesn’t prove anything, only a small percentage of people die from the virus, most recover, etc. That may well be true, we acknowledge that we urgently need more information and evidence on the treatment procedure and the patients’ condition throughout the treatment process. But that argument doesn’t acknowledge or address the fact that all of the people that have been treated by the healers with the leaves of Gliricidia sepium have completely recovered from all of the visible signs and symptoms of COVID very rapidly.

We do not ask that anyone believe a word we say, only that more studies be undertaken openly, honestly and without prejudice as a matter of urgency to verify the treatment method and determine its effectiveness, capabilities and limitations. If the treatment is as effective as we are convinced that it is, we would only ask that the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities of the region be prioritized in the sourcing of the product, and that their territorial and cultural rights and heritage be respected in terms of obtaining access to the raw material for mass production (the treatment is derived from the knowledge and practices of the ‘curanderos’, the traditional healers of the region, and is an integral part of their cultural and scientific heritage).

And, definitely, no COMMERCIAL IN CONFIDENCE, no TRADE SECRETS. The confusion and proliferation of inaccurate, contradictory and unverifiable information is just as dangerous and harmful as the disease itself, and people must have access to all relevant information if we are to have any chance of understanding what is happening and devising the best responses to address the multiple crises that the pandemic has caused.

One of the people who has been using the leaves of matarraton to treat COVID patients is Dr Jesus Rosero, a medical practitioner with more than 30 years’ experience after graduating from medicine at the Universidad del Valle (Cali), specializing in malariology and tropical diseases. After over a year treating people, he is convinced that the treatment method is very effective for both curing ambulatory cases of COVID as well as for preventing infection in the first place (whilst still urging people to follow common sense precautions to minimize the risk of infection and to consult a medical expert if they show symptoms of infection).

In the news reports in the mass media that followed the announcement in mid-2020 that there is a natural cure for COVID that many people on the Pacific coast are using, Colombia’s medical and scientific Establishment rubbished the claim and dismissed Dr Rosero’s efforts and conclusions as unsubstantiated. Almost all major media agencies that covered the announcement that ‘matarratón’ appears to be an effective treatment for COVID denounced it as ‘fake news’, citing a variety of medical and scientific experts saying that there is no evidence that the leaves of the plant can cure COVID, that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not announced that the plant is an effective form of treatment for COVID, etc.

None of the experts consulted mentioned that there also is no evidence that the plant is NOT effective against COVID (as no official studies have been done), and none of them showed the slightest interest in investigating the possibility through a series of formal exploratory studies and clinical trials.

If something in the realm of health, science or technology doesn’t come from the United States or Europe, the medical and scientific Establishment in Colombia is not interested. Moreover, it tends to be disparaging and cynical, if not contemptuous, of discoveries and developments elsewhere. This is particularly the case for natural medicines and other scientific, medicinal and cultural knowledge and expertise that exists in the many Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. There is not even one well-established natural medicine institute or faculty in Colombia, the country with according to some estimates the second highest level of plant diversity in the world.

Of course, the argument that there is an inherent systemic bias and racism in the medical and scientific Establishment in Colombia, which operates in favour of US and western European corporate and geopolitical interests (pursuant to which Colombian institutions remain in a position of strategic subordination) and against the rights and interests of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities (as well as against greater cooperation and integration with other Latin American countries) is not to suggest that all medical and scientific practitioners and researchers share this attitude. However, most of the core institutions and decision-making processes are strictly controlled by political and economic groups that share this attitude.

For example, an article published by El Espectador (20 August 2020, “There is no evidence that matarratón cures COVID-19”) – with information and arguments repeated by Semana and many other high profile national and regional media agencies – among other things pronounced:

“Once again, disinformation is circulating promoting matarratón as a ‘cure’ against COVID-19. This time it arose in Tumaco, Nariño, where the tree is being promoted by the former governor of Nariño, the doctor Jesús Rosero Ruano, who assures us that the plant (Gliricidia Sepium) is effective against this viral disease and that its use is recommended at the onset of symptoms.

However, and as we have already said, the World Health Organization has repeatedly stated throughout the pandemic that “although some natural remedies of Western or traditional medicine or home remedies can be comforting and alleviate the mildest symptoms of COVID-19, so far no drug has been shown to prevent or cure the disease.” LINK (All translations from sources in Spanish translated by the author.)

More recently, El Tiempo (18 January 2021, “Authorities ask residents to maintain self-care despite the decrease in infections in Tumaco”) published a less disparaging article on the topic, although it presented the possibility of the use of matarratón as a treatment for COVID as something of a quaint if somewhat primitive cultural curiosity rather than something that must be investigated and verified or disproven as soon as possible. Among other things the report noted:

“The manager of the Divino Niño Hospital in Tumaco, Carolina Farinango Hernández, told us that as a part of their culture, when the new coronavirus arrived many people opted to bathe with water soaked with matarratón leaves and to sleep with the leaves of the same plant scattered on their bed. Not content with that, they also drink boiled water with the leaves (like a herbal tea), accompanied by other natural products such as ginger and lemon. However, these self-care methods do not have scientific evidence to support the claim that it is the reason for the decline in COVID cases in the region.

At the same time that there was a sudden and prolonged drop in the number of COVID cases in Tumaco, on 15 May last year 394 positive cases were reported in the nearby province of Esmeraldas (Ecuador) and as of the 11th of June of the same year 1,339 cases had been registered…

During the same period, in the villages of the Colombian border region of Tumaco there were no reported fatalities and a low number of infected people, usually showing very mild symptoms, the director of the regional hospital told us, attributing the phenomenon to a strictly cultural factor (of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities) in the region.

“I think it is very important to highlight what has happened here, we still cannot understand why all the people who have been infected in the region have managed to recover,” she revealed. She did not rule out the possibility that the plant contains some components that have had a positive impact on the health of men and women who used the plant to cure the COVID infection. LINK

It must be emphasized, while all of the news reports emphasized the absence of official evidence that matarraton is an effective treatment for COVID, none of them placed corresponding emphasis on the fact that there is also no evidence that the treatment is NOT effective given that no medical or scientific institution with the resources and authority to do so has been willing to initiate studies to verify or disprove the claims once and for all.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Tumaco region continues to be very low, particularly in the more remote communities where the availability of and reliance on traditional medicines remains very strong.

There has been a similar situation with respect to the medicinal plant ‘moringa’, which in August of last year was mentioned by some media outlets as a possible cure for COVID. According to one of the reports at the time:

It turned out that, faced with the very limited variety of options to help people recover from the virus, a group of guards from the National Penitentiary and Prisons Institute (Inpec) at the prison in Villavicencio decided to bet on the medicinal plant, which they gave to the prisoners and the guards…

20 prisons in the country have now used the moringa infusion as a treatment for COVID-19…

The results appear to be encouraging as, according to what we were told by one of the guards, after distributing the infusion of moringa mixed with lemon and raw sugar in the prisons the number of positive COVID cases passed from 900 to 0. Is it possible? …

According to immunologist Jose Vicente Silva, there are still no studies suggesting that the treatment is effective… “Moringa has been used for many things and it appears that it is effective for the treatment of some illnesses”. However, he also referred to the scientific evidence that for every 100 people only 2 develop severe symptoms from COVID-19, adding: “With or without moringa the number of deaths will continue to be low, this is why it is necessary to do more studies”… LINK

When the prison authorities were utilizing herbal remedies based on the moringa plant in prisons in the north and centre of the country, in the prisons in Tumaco and Pasto they used the treatment based on matarraton leaves, and the results suggest that here also the herbal treatment helped to prevent a mass outbreak of the viral infection despite the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in the detention centres (Dr. Jesús Rosero, personal communication).

The complete lack of interest of the health authorities and official medical and scientific institutions in conducting investigations into the possibility of a cure for COVID is stupefying, and more than a little disconcerting. As the country continues to be ravaged by the worst health crisis in modern history, it begs the question: what the hell ARE they doing? How is it that they can’t find the time between them to dedicate one or two laboratories and research teams to investigate the considerable evidence that there is at least one and possibly two natural remedies for COVID?

Having said that, I must acknowledge the difficulties involved in elaborating and executing such scientific studies and clinical trials. It is not easy. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility and the duty of the country’s public health authorities and medical and scientific institutes to investigate and verify all of the available measures and remedies that have demonstrated positive results in the fight against the COVID pandemic without prejudice, and among these surely it must be a task of utmost urgency to verify the considerable albeit preliminary results obtained from the treatments with matarraton and moringa.

The institutional bias and prejudice of the medical and health Establishment in Colombia against natural medicine is also clearly apparent in the media discourse. Nonetheless, although most mainstream media outlets have been extremely dismissive and disparaging of Dr Jesus Rosero’s efforts (as well as of the potential utility of moringa to complement and strengthen the campaign against COVID), there have been some important exceptions including the local radio station Radio Mira, the local virtual news portal Informativo del Sur, and the journalists Luis Eduardo Carlosama of Caracol TV and Delfina Benavides of Magazin.

In terms of international developments, there are reports of another medicinal plant, in Thailand, which has also demonstrated very promising results in preliminary trials investigating its potential as a treatment for COVID. As in Colombia, an unfolding disaster in the country’s prisons was the catalyst for a hasty, improvised ‘real world’ trial. And as in Colombia, the results of the treatment proved to be excellent.

However, unlike in Colombia, in Thailand the treatment has received official interest and support, and clinical studies are underway to investigate the effectiveness of the treatment and its possible limitations. Maybe you have heard of this? Is it not something that should have made headlines around the world? There is a real possibility that in Thailand there is a herbal medicine that is quite effective at curing COVID, the cause of the world’s biggest health, social and economic crisis in modern times!!!

In June 2021 media from Thailand reported:

The National Drug Development Committee, headed by Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, has issued an announcement to add Fah Talai Jone [Andrographis paniculate, also commonly called green chiretta] to the national essential herbal medicine list, paving the way for its use in COVID-19 patients who are suffering mild symptoms…

The Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine and Thai traditional medicine practitioners have long been fighting for the Ministry of Public Health to recognize that the herb can ease some COVID-19 symptoms.

The department claims that clinical trials of the drug show it is efficacious in people infected with the virus. The department’s effort to have the herbal medicine formally recognized has, however, met with stiff resistance from what it calls ‘western-trained’ physicians, claiming that there is no scientific proof about the benefit the drug in the fight against COVID-19… LINK

In October, a follow up report published at Asia Times added further details:

[Faced with] an emergency situation, the Thai Corrections Department gave the herbal remedy to 11,800 inmates with mild symptoms of upper respiratory infections and now claims that 99% of them recovered, prompting the Thai Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation to recommend that asymptomatic patients take 180mg of chiretta a day, divided into three doses at mealtimes.

As far as we know, full data for this intervention has not been released to the international scientific community and details of the study are sparse.

In Thailand, a randomized controlled trial with just over 3,000 participants is comparing chiretta extract (containing 20mg of andrographolide per capsule, for a total of 180mg per day, dosing into three capsules taken before each meal for five days) with ‘standard care’ in people with asymptomatic Covid.

The main outcome the researchers are investigating is how many people in each group end up in hospital within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test. The trial is expected to be complete in May 2022…

A small trial at Tbilisi State Medical University in Georgia is testing a combination of chiretta and Siberian ginseng extract for treating mild Covid symptoms. The results are also expected in early 2022… LINK

In September a Japanese media outlet reported of the developments in Thailand:

A medicinal herb in Thailand that has been used since antiquity to relieve cold symptoms is now being promoted by the government as a way to relieve symptoms in mild cases of COVID-19.

Demand is so high for fah talai jone, also known as green chiretta that the asking price multiplied by a factor of 10 this year. The military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha sees the crop as a means to curb discontent in farming communities… LINK

One would think that with thousands more people around the world dying from the viral infection and related complications with every day that passes, countries would be lining up to send research teams to follow the studies and maybe even obtain quantities of the prospective remedy to carry out preliminary trials with voluntary patients in their own countries. Given the steadily mounting death toll, surely every possible remedy that could be useful in the fight against COVID merits immediate investigation to evaluate their effectiveness and limitations?

I have not yet been able to confirm if it has occurred to the Wall Street owned and operated Pentagon-backed Japanese government and mainstream media to conduct studies into the effectiveness and limitations of the natural remedy being used in Thailand in order to diversify and strengthen the country’s campaign against COVID-19. However, Japan has by all accounts achieved remarkable success over the last few months. There are two parallel narratives purporting to explain what has happened, one attributing the drastic turnaround to the widespread deployment of Ivermectin in the weeks prior to the massive reduction in COVID infections, the other attributing the sudden reduction to the cumulative effect of the mass vaccination program and associated social confinement measures.

Before continuing, and as noted previously, it is clear that all COVID- and vaccine-related information and reports must be treated with great caution. There is no shortage of reports by eminent medical practitioners and scientists claiming that Ivermectin (among others) is quite or very effective against COVID. There is also no shortage of reports by eminent medical practitioners and scientists claiming that this is not the case.

As argued in an earlier report, the greatest obstacle to organizing an effective response to the pandemic and the associated health, social and economic crises is the absence of transparent, authoritative focal points for the investigation, compilation and analysis of the origin and evolution of COVID-19 as well as for the evaluation, comparison and monitoring of the effectiveness and limitations of the vaccines and treatments.

With this caveat in mind, the following reports summarize what has happened in Japan and the competing narratives purporting to explain the remarkable progress that has been made over the last couple of months:

Dr. Haruo Ozaki, chairman of the Tokyo Metropolitan Medical Association had held an emergency press conference on August 13, announcing some 18000 new infections daily. However, the death count has eased as compared to previous surges. In an interview with the The Yomiuri Shimbun on August 5, Ozaki spoke in detail about his opinion that Ivermectin should be used in Japan and said that his early calls for usage had seemingly not been heeded.

Japan had slavishly adhered to all the Big Pharma prescriptions, including quarantine, contact tracing, masking, social distance, but finally the pandemic had hit them hard after they started aggressive vaccination in May 2021. The results looked good initially, but in mid July they started rising again and on August 6 cases hit a new all time high and continued to rise.

Ivermectin was allowed as a treatment on August 13 and after 2 weeks the cases started to come down. In fact, they are now down 99 percent from the peak.

Since April 28, India medical officials started providing hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin to its massive population. As India is the major pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world, they are naturally geared for mass drug distribution.

Much like the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, parts of Bangladesh, and places like Argentina and Mexico, Ozaki had called for the immediate release of Ivermectin in Japan…

Dr. Ozaki has cited evidence from African nations that have utilized Ivermectin to treat Covid-19. He stated: “In Africa, if we compare countries distributing Ivermectin once a year with countries who do not give Ivermectin… they don’t give Ivermectin to prevent Covid but to prevent parasitic disease… if we look at Covid numbers in countries that give Ivermectin, the number of cases is 134.4/100,000 and the number of deaths is 2.2/100 000.” LINK

Another commentator argued of the developments in Japan and its recent success in controlling the pandemic:

Japan just flattened their biggest COVID curve yet, and they did so by legalizing and using Ivermectin. In almost every country, infection rates and daily death records have increased with each new wave of sickness. The public health advice of lockdowns, isolation, mask mandates and mass inoculation programs has only continued to cause larger curves of sickness and hospitalization. The withholding of viable treatments, a crime against humanity, has all but crippled humanity’s ability to adapt to and recover from respiratory infections. But there’s hope in Japan, where Ivermectin has been deployed to help people recover from covid-19 so they can have more durable, lasting immunity…

The vaccine-induced pandemic could have spiraled out of control, but Japan decided to do something different than the US and other failing nations that depend solely on vaccines and masks. In September, the nation deployed Ivermectin and began treating patients with more dignity. Caseloads plummeted rapidly. In Tokyo, there were nearly 6,000 cases in the middle of August. By the end of September, the caseload had fallen well below one hundred, an 11-month low. The Associated Press tried to heap praise on vaccines and masks for the sudden success, even though these materials had statistically failed the nation for over a year, leading to massive waves of COVID and other diseases… LINK

On 26 November a report by ABC news affirmed:

Japan reported no daily deaths from COVID-19 on Sunday for the first time in 15 months, as infections decline rapidly in the country…

The last time Japan reported no new coronavirus deaths was on Aug. 2, 2020, according to the ministry.

Japan was then hit by several waves of infections, including one led by the delta variant last summer, when daily cases peaked at around 25,000. Health care systems came close to collapse and tens of thousands of patients who were unable to find hospital beds had to recover at home. In Tokyo, new daily cases rose to nearly 6,000.

Nationwide cases started falling in September. Experts have attributed the decline to vaccination progress as well as widespread mask wearing and use of disinfectants, among other reasons.

Vaccinations in Japan, despite a slow start, accelerated in June, and now nearly 74% of the population is fully immunized. The government plans to begin booster shots in December and also secure newly developed COVID-19 medicines.

Japan is gradually expanding social and economic activities, though experts caution against easing restrictions too quickly… LINK

A compilation of references on related developments in Japan over the last few months is available HERE.

Returning to the ongoing investigation in Tumaco, as I have continued researching the topic, I have met more and more people in the Tumaco region who have been cured, or who have cured themselves, from COVID by using the traditional herbal remedy (in some cases after testing positive, in most cases after having developed the symptoms of COVID infection but without undergoing a medical examination).

The plant is also listed as ‘Matarraton’ in the Vademécum Colombiano de plantas medicinales of 2008, an official publication listing medicinal plants in Colombia, in which the multitude of references and citations includes the comments: “The use of the leaves and branches has been observed and verified to combat persistent fever in babies and adults… No reports have been found of adverse reactions for this species…”

An exploratory study of the use of the plant to cure Dengue fever was conducted during 2007-2008, in which several scientists and medical experts from a university in the regional capital (Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia, at its campus in Pasto) worked together with a traditional healer in Tumaco to investigate the plant’s effectiveness in the treatment of Dengue.

The study was led by Iván Hernández Ramírez and conducted with the participation of four of his colleagues from the Program of Medicine at the Universidad Cooperativa, Hernán Guerrero Torres, Norberto López Muñoz, Migdonio Meza Ibarba and Álvaro Rosero Arevalo.

All of the patients that participated in the study showed substantial if not complete recovery within a couple of days of commencing the treatment, and subsequent blood tests showed that the patients’ results had returned to normal levels. The study was published in the journal ColCiencia (Revista Nacional de Investigación – Memorias, Volumen 8 (13), enero-junio de 2010) in 2010. A copy of the original in Spanish is available online. LINK

I have translated the summary of the exploratory study into English, it is available at an internet page where I have published a selection of my research. LINK

I was convinced at the time I found the report of the exploratory study, and I remain convinced, that this type of scientific analysis studying the condition of voluntary patients undergoing the treatment would be the most efficient, effective and rapid way to begin to verify and evaluate the results of the treatment.

In the course of my research, I have met several medical practitioners and traditional healers in the Tumaco region (including Dr Jesus Rosero) who are using the plant as a treatment against COVID. Although there are some small variations among practitioners, the preparation method is generally very similar or identical to that described in the Dengue study, and in all cases the results have been excellent.

Dr Álvaro Rosero Arevalo, who participated in the exploratory study of the Dengue treatment, is now investigating the treatment’s effectiveness against COVID together with Dr Jesús Rosero Ruano. According to the results of the chemical analysis that was carried out as part of the study of the medicinal plant’s effectiveness against Dengue, it appears that the saponins contained in the leaves are the principal active constituent that serves to neutralize the COVID virus in the patients’ blood (Dr Jesús Rosero Ruano, personal communication).

I have also had the good fortune to meet Dr Héctor Antonio Angulo Angulo, a traditional healer and PhD in Biology who is also using the treatment, and has established a local foundation (Fundación Universalidad de la Vida y la Paz) to develop and promote the utilization of ancestral and integrated medicine in the context of holistic and sustainable economic and social development and health care strategies. Among the Foundation’s activities is the preparation of a therapeutic infusion which contains 75 plants, made in accordance with ancestral methods and distributed without charge to the community.

Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

The author with Dr Jesús Rosero Ruano in Tumaco

Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

The author with staff from the Fundación Universalidad de la Vida y la Paz in Tumaco, a foundation created by the traditional healer Dr Héctor Antonio Angulo Angulo, who has a PhD in Biology (specializing in the physiology of the nervous system) from Moscow State University.

As the plant has a long history of medicinal uses, the risk of adverse reactions is as low as could be (after all, everything is a risk – getting out of bed in the morning is a risk. Not getting out of bed in the morning also has its risks…). Moreover, with every day that the initiation of exploratory studies with voluntary ambulatory patients is delayed, it is certain that many thousands more people around the world will die from the virus or associated complications.

Traditional healers in the Tumaco region are also confident that the treatment with Gliricidia is just as effective to cure (and for the prevention of) the varieties of yellow fever and malaria that occur in the region. As in the case of the use of Gliricidia leaves for the treatment of COVID and Dengue, more studies of the plant’s effectiveness as a treatment for malaria and yellow fever are urgently needed to investigate its potential as a remedy for these viral diseases, the effective treatment of which remain a major challenge for modern medicine notwithstanding ongoing advances in the area. More generally, there are literally hundreds of medicinal plants used by traditional healers in the Pacific coast region of Colombia that merit detailed investigation, both in terms of their use as natural medicines as well as in terms of their potential to provide base material for isolated and purified extracts and allopathic medicines. On the condition that the cultural patrimony and collective rights of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian traditional healers and communities are acknowledged, respected and guaranteed and that their prior informed consent is obtained before any ‘bioprospecting’ activities are undertaken.

Foundations for an Intercultural Health Strategy

The lack of interest in and bias against natural remedies demonstrated by the scientific and medical institutions in the treatment of COVID and other diseases is replicated in the country’s health sector, where no formal recognition or provision is made for the incorporation of traditional medicines and treatments in formal health programs notwithstanding the fact that traditional medicines remain the primary form of health care in many rural and remote regions. In this respect, the adoption by Mexico of a holistic intercultural strategy to confront the COVID pandemic deserves to be studied in order to evaluate how such a strategy could be implemented in Colombia.

The Mexican strategy is outlined in the document “Integration of ICTM (Intercultural Traditional Medicine), with intercultural strategies and strengthening of the health sector in the response to the COVID pandemic in Mexico” formulated by the Federal Health Secretariat. LINK

Specifically, shortly after the COVID outbreak arrived in Mexico the Directorate of Traditional Medicine and Intercultural Development (Dirección de Medicina Tradicional y Desarrollo Intercultural, DMTDI) elaborated a plan to identify the potential contribution that could be made to the country’s anti-COVID efforts by herbal medicines, homeopathy and acupuncture. Mexican plants with antiviral and other therapeutic properties were identified and enlisted in the campaign, and possible medicines and treatments from other countries were also investigated.

The responsibilities and functions of the DMTDI are stipulated by Article 25 of the Internal Regulations of the Federal Health Secretariat, and include among other functions to “design, develop and promote national policies relating to traditional, alternative and complementary medicines in the National Health System”.

During the elaboration of the integrated health strategy specialists in homeopathy and acupuncture were invited to submit protocols of prevention and treatment, and a request was sent to the intercultural liaison offices of the respective state governments’ health secretariats to identify possible contributions that could be made by the traditional medicines of the Indigenous communities living in each state.

Although the intercultural program that has been elaborated in Mexico as part of the campaign against COVID constitutes an important advance in the broadening and strengthening of the fight against the pandemic in Latin America, it is arguably somewhat limited in certain respects and several aspects could be considered to further reinforce its effect both in terms of the campaign against COVID as well as in terms of actively recognizing and guaranteeing the heritage and resource rights and the biological, cultural and medicinal patrimony of the country’s Indigenous communities and traditional healers.

For example, although the logistical aspects remain very complicated in the prevailing conditions, securing the active participation of Indigenous communities and their traditional healers (always on the condition that they freely consent to participate on mutually agreed terms) in the design and execution of relevant components of the campaign would be a great step forward, and could provide a basis for exploring the practicality and desirability of extending intercultural strategies and projects throughout the health sector (including education and research and development programs, service provision and the construction and management of health clinics in rural and remote areas). Ideally this would be accompanied by a broader dialogue and negotiations with respect to the recognition and protection of the cultural and biological heritage of the region’s Indigenous peoples and Afro-American communities.

Possible topics for discussion could include the negotiation of treaties, regional agreements (widely used in Canada in particular but also in New Zealand and Australia to recognize a wide range of territorial and cultural rights in specific localities and contexts), the formulation of constitutional provisions to try to ensure that such rights cannot be abrogated by the ‘government (or parliament) of the day’, and/ or specific legal and administrative regimes and model contracts and agreements to regulate and facilitate licensing and other types of access agreements on mutually beneficial terms (see, for example, Daes 1997: Janke, 1998: Dutfield 2000: Durette, 2007: Langton et al, 2006).

Contradictory and destructive regional development schemes

Another aspect of the future investigation, research and development of natural medicines based on Gliricidia sepium is the boost that their production could provide to the regional economy in the event that detailed investigation of the treatment methods should produce favourable results.

Tumaco aspires to become a tourist haven given its abundance of biological diversity and spectacular landscapes, however the prospects for realizing this potential are severely constricted by the ongoing persistence of armed conflict (apart from its prodigious supply of Gliricidia sepium, the municipality’s fertile floodplains also host the largest expanse of coca plantations in Colombia, and the region is also a major strategic transport route for international shipments), as well as by the low quality of essential services, transport and tourism infrastructure and facilities. While the national government has launched numerous high profile regional development programs over the years, the region remains mired in poverty and overall economic and social abandonment and stagnation.

Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

University of the Pacific. The billboard states the project demonstrates the: “National Commitment to Build the Region”. The contracting company commenced construction of the buildings about 6 years ago, then disappeared along with the funding shortly thereafter.

Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

University of the Pacific. The billboard states the project demonstrates the: “National Commitment to Build the Region”. The contracting company commenced construction of the buildings about 6 years ago, then disappeared along with the funding shortly thereafter.

Since the Spanish conquistadors arrived to the region up to modern times the economy has been based on intensive natural resource extraction, complemented since the 1970s by the proliferation of agribusiness projects based almost exclusively on African palm plantations (and, since the 1990s, coca plantations).

The national government’s occasional economic development schemes and initiatives in the Tumaco region have with few exceptions been complete failures in social, environmental and even economic terms, in part due to poor planning and the inherent Establishment bias and prejudices of central government institutions noted above (and the associated exclusivist and patronizing attitude of the project planners and administrators). One analyst comments that:

The urban degradation has been such that the local population – black and of mixed descent – has rebelled on several occasions: during the rolling strikes of 1977 to protest the closing of the timber mills; during the Tumacazo in 1988, and more recently in 1994, with huge mobilizations against the deplorable condition of the regional water supply infrastructure. In each one of these events, the denunciations of institutional abandonment were explicitly related in greater or lesser degree with the racial discrimination that Tumaco, and in particular its native inhabitants, suffer. In each instance forms of institutional racism were denounced that operate not just against individuals, but against the entire city perceived as a social-political actor… (Odile Hoffman, 2010; 7-8)

Other factors behind the failure of most of the associated schemes and projects have been the ubiquitous corruption, fraud and opportunism of most of the particular groups involved (including local, regional and national politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen), and the lack or very poor quality of essential infrastructure and services throughout the region. Inevitably, after a short period almost all of the projects associated with the respective initiatives have been terminated and the funding and resources that were invested have been syphoned off leaving no benefit for the inhabitants of the region. Today, even the most basic and essential goods and services – such as an aqueduct for the supply of potable drinking water to houses or a reliable source of electricity at a reasonable cost – remain in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, hallucination or delusion for the region’s inhabitants.

Although the national economic development policies and initiatives have facilitated the insertion of several natural resource extraction and agribusiness sectors dominated by people and groups from outside the region and some local political and economic elites (the cultivation of African palm, timber, gold, fisheries, and since the 1990s immense coca crops), most of these development schemes have resulted in the marginalization and displacement of local communities and the depletion and degradation of natural resources and ecosystems rather than providing a basis and complementary, mutually reinforcing pathways for equitable and ecologically sustainable development. (See, for example, Ricardo Oviedo Arévalo, 2009: Luis Fernando Botero Villegas, 2008)

One example of this is the prioritization of African palm plantations in development schemes heavily supported by the national government during the 1970s and early 1980s:

“One of the most disturbing aspects of this business scheme was the way that access to land was provided. In the case of some of the companies involved, Incora (the ‘Institute for Agrarian Reform’) gave them extensive tracts of land practically with the flick of a pen, land that had been occupied since the 19th century by the Awá Indigenous people and by Afro-Colombian families. In this way, the insertion of African palm plantations turned local landowners and farmers into landless employees…” (Jaime Rivas, 2021; 101)

The preceding natural resource extraction and agribusiness projects had also treated the territories of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities as terra nullius (the land of no one, or vacant Crown land), and they were liberally appropriated by the national government and allocated to politically well-connected ‘investors’.

In what appeared to be a major turning point in the basis and operational context of centre-regional-local relations, in 1993 the national Congress approved a law (Law 70 of 1993) to provide for the implementation of transitional Article 55 of the new Constitution adopted in 1991, which recognises the territories and right to autonomy and self-government of the Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific coast. A separate constitutional, legal and administrative regime recognizes the territories and right to self-government of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples (Law 160 of 1994).

While the constitutionally ordained regimes are a major advance for the rural and remote Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities of Tumaco, their implementation has been rendered extremely difficult if not impossible in many cases by the drastic escalation of the armed conflict and coca cultivation, the overwhelming presence of illegal armed groups and the related process of militarization of the region.

The successive waves of colonization, forced displacement, development and militarization are described in a recently published book, La herencia de nuestros mayores (The inheritance of our Elders):

The economic system in this region has always been based on the exploitation of natural resources. It began with the development of colonial mining activities, which subsequently diversified to include the extraction of rubber towards the end of the 19th century and the exploitation of tagua (a product extracted from a native tree species) early in the 20th century. This was followed in the 1930s by the exploitation of tannin from the bark of mangrove trees…

From the 1940s to the 1970s and 1980s timber production predominated, which practically wiped out many of the fine wood forests in the region…

[In the late 1970s] government officials began to talk about development, saying that we were the poorest of the poor in Colombia despite the abundance of natural resources. That was what the ‘paisa’ (people from the central regions of Colombia) told us about their development schemes for the Tumaco region. They told us that we were disorganized, that we had to learn how to conduct businesses to make good use of our resources and raise our standard of living…

First it was a project called the Cauca-Nariño plan with the purpose of rebuilding the region after the 1979 earthquake and tsunami, followed by the Comprehensive Development Plan of the Pacific Coast (1984-1990)…

[These were followed in the 1990s by ‘Proyecto BioPacífico’ and ‘Plan Pacífico’. One of the projects associated with these initiatives was upgrading the main fishing port.]

“The Padrinos Plan supported initiatives in the fisheries sector led by ANPAC, the National Association of Fishermen. A pastuso (a person from the provincial capital) was appointed to manage the fishing port project in Tumaco, which in the end was implemented with financing from the national government and a loan from the IDB. However … the project was not successful due to the lack of adequate infrastructure to transport the products to the main urban markets in the centre of the country…

The basic infrastructure for the fishing port project, a refrigeration and ice plant and fuel supply facilities, was built. It was also intended to provide technical support to related companies – a canning plant, dry dock and shipyard – as well as the coordination of the activities of artisanal fishermen and commercial companies. But in this end all this did not work out and although the port was for a time supplying ice, eventually it closed down. Many millions of pesos … were spent on this project. Ultimately, the beneficiaries of the project were the same businessmen as always. The artisanal fishermen returned to their traditional practices…” (Jaime Rivas, 2021; 68, 96, 98-99)

Elaborating an alternative biological resource-based development strategy

In terms of the potential for a major ‘bio-prospecting-led’ development scheme, at least two alternatives paths would be possible. A development scheme seeking to capitalize on the commercial potential of Colombia’s biodiversity could be pursued by simply signing contracts with foreign (no doubt US or western European based) companies in which Colombia receives some token up-front fees, as well as royalty payments in the event of successful product development.

Perhaps such agreements would also include provision for limited participation in R&D activities by a small number of Colombian research centres, companies and ‘Potemkin villages’ (along with informal agreements providing for the subsequent employment by the companies of some of the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the key decision-making process). However all of the substantive decisions as to research and development and most of the revenue generated would be controlled by the foreign-based companies in accordance with their interests and objectives, and there would be little or no boost to Colombia’s technological capacity and industrial development.

An alternative development path would be to emphasize the strategic capacity-building of Colombian public and community-based research institutions, associations and enterprises (for example, with several integrated ‘technology parks’ serving as regional hubs or focal points) to elaborate and execute the research and development projects and associated activities, seeking to optimize the incorporation of advanced technology from other countries without surrendering control and management of the projects to foreign corporate interests. Economies of scale and diversification and deepening of industrial and technological capacity-building could be further enhanced by seeking cooperative arrangements with neighbouring countries in order to share the costs and benefits and also to maximize value-adding activities. (For a detailed analysis of the different types of strategies and arrangements that have been adopted by particular countries and companies see, for example, Bennett, Balick & Laird (eds), 1996)

In generalized terms, the two development paths correspond to very distinct conceptual and pragmatic premises and objectives associated with the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ governance and development paradigms respectively. The former involves social and economic development that results in ever greater concentration of wealth, power and technology in compliance with a process of ‘globalization’ constructed by vast financial-corporate consortiums based on the depletion and degradation of natural resources and their replacement with synthetic substitutes. The latter recognizes that there are alternative ways to achieve social and economic development, that involve working in harmony with nature and a more measured and equitable evolution of social and economic ‘globalization’ that emphasizes the connectivity and recognizes the mutual benefits of cooperation between communities and regional economies which are to a considerable extent self-sufficient in terms of the most basic and essential goods and services.

The prolonged national and sectoral strikes and the blockades of the main transport corridors that have rocked Colombia over the last several years have demonstrated most emphatically the deterioration in the regional economy and its absolute dependence on the exterior for the supply of almost all of the most basic and essential goods and services. On numerous occasions, after several weeks of disruption the markets in Tumaco have been empty of everything except platanos (a locally grown vegetable) and a very narrow selection of other locally produced fruits and vegetables.

Then the pandemic arrived…

While a great quantity of capital and technological resources and planning are required to realize many of the necessary structural changes, some of the strategic changes and adjustments could be realized with a minimum of resources and organization, for example to stop purchasing products such as beverages produced by the corporate giants ‘Killer Coke’ and Nestlé (which have drawn strong criticism for their exploitative practices and allegations of collaboration with paramilitary groups to try to destroy the trade union that represents a large proportion of their workforce) or Postobon (a large Colombian junk food producer) and returning to the production and promotion of healthy snack foods and beverages in the local economy.

In terms of infrastructure, I have suggested in several forums on economic and social development in the region that the engineering corps of the armed forces, which have been deployed to the region in force, should put a contingent at the service of the local communities building and upgrading the infrastructure in the region and augmenting the capabilities of the local government so that it has the capacity to construct and maintain essential facilities and infrastructure directly instead of limiting itself to signing costly contracts with a succession of politically-connected companies which are difficult if not impossible to supervise and which in many cases aren’t completed.

A related point, USAID has been active in the region for many years and is present at many of the official events that talk about social and economic development. Its officials also have extensive relations with government agencies in the region and with the local government (while the US military has a constant presence in the main military installations). But I have never encountered or heard of a community project where the ‘gringo’ international development agency is directly assisting a community to produce and process healthy and ecologically sustainable products for the regional market, to construct and equip a community centre that contributes to the education and capacitation of its inhabitants, or to install an electricity plant based on locally abundant renewable energy sources.

Then again, I haven’t been able to travel to the rural and remote areas of the region very often – many of the ‘drug traffickers’ suspect me of being ‘the law’ or an infiltrated agent of the DEA. And the infiltrated DEA agents and officials of the law suspect me of being a drug trafficker…

In this context, if the use of Gliricidia for the treatment of COVID (as well as yellow fever, Dengue, malaria and other diseases and afflictions) should prove to be effective, if production and supply systems are well organized and remain under the management and control of the local communities in the region they could provide a major boost to economic and social development in the region.

This is precisely what is happening in Thailand with the production of capsules derived from the medicinal plant ‘Fah Talai Jone’ for the national market, where the government and health officials have been willing to investigate and take advantage of their ‘green gold’ while at the same time providing a boost to rural development and diversifying and strengthening the national campaign against the COVID pandemic.

In their discussion of the use of Gliricidia leaves as a treatment for Dengue the authors of the exploratory study mentioned previously note that:

The secular use of plants in ethno-medicine originated long before the conquest of the American continent by Europeans. In the study area (the Tumaco region of Colombia), the tree is used as a living fence for livestock, or to provide shade for cocoa crops. It is also reportedly used as forage for livestock, mainly goats, as well as a pollen producer for the beekeeping industry, for the production of charcoal, as an insecticide, rodenticide, antipyretic, and antibiotic (Madrigal, 1990, p. 12). It is also used as an antifungal agent due to the high content of plant metabolites such as: terpenes, flavonoids, photocoumarins, tannins, lignans, benzenoids, alkanes, saponins, glycosides and phenylpropanoids…

The present exploratory, observational, descriptive study, with a prospective approach directed both forwards (event) and backwards (factors), enables an analysis of the efficacy of Gliricidia sepium as an antiviral agent. The observation of specific cases in which treatment with the plant is used, and describing the forms of preparation and use, yielded the following results: one hundred per cent remission of signs and symptoms that accompany the virus in a period not exceeding three days, in all of the 85 patients who voluntarily participated in the study.

The study consisted of two components, one with a prospective approach directed backwards, involving surveys of people who had previously suffered the symptoms of Dengue and were treated with traditional medicine, and another group of patients who, once they presented the signs and symptoms associated with Dengue, voluntarily chose to undergo the treatment with Matarratón (a forward-directed prospective study).

In conclusion, the evidence collected by the present study indicates that Matarratón is a powerful antiviral agent, capable of achieving the remission of the signs and symptoms of Dengue infections in a period not exceeding three days, in contrast to allopathic medical treatments, whose treatment protocol (antipyretics, analgesics and hydration) takes more than ten days for remission of the signs and symptoms of Dengue.

Another relevant factor explaining the preference of many people in the Tumaco region to opt for treatment with traditional medicine is the scarcity of economic resources in the study area. From this perspective, wider recognition of the medicinal properties of the plant could offer a valuable additional source of income for the region. Adopting a vision from the solidarity economy perspective, and taking into account the plant’s demonstrated effectiveness in treating Dengue, allows us to propose an alternative method of treatment, given the existence of a substantial international market for medicinal plants that are considered ‘drugs of plant origin’ (Ocampo, 2002, p. 35).

These factors combined suggest that with appropriate policies and support, Gliricidia could become an important product for the international market. Therefore, an additional conclusion of this study is that it is advisable to train the population in obtaining and processing the extract of Matarratón leaves for the purpose of economic exploitation.

The main problem in the current context is that these perspectives and arguments are never presented before the Congress and its committees, nor in the meetings of the senior and mid-level officials in the health and scientific bureaucracies or the presidential palace. At the key decision-making levels of the legislative and executive apparatus the relevant officials are only interested in meeting with and hearing from the lobbyists and experts of the pharmaceutical companies (and the medical and scientific Establishment ‘experts’ who are very well paid to parrot what the companies say and promote their products as the only viable alternative), and they have no idea (nor are they interested in knowing) what is happening in other areas beyond their potential as a captive testing ground for their schemes and market for their products.

Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

A statue in one of the town’s main plazas, dedicated to the many social and community leaders in the region who have been murdered since the mid-1990s for their efforts to improve their communities, reclaim their land, protect their territories, and resist the forced displacement of their communities for agribusiness and resource extraction projects or due to the incursions of illegal armed groups.

Medicine Of, By And For The People? The Ongoing Search For An Integrated Health Strategy To Combat COVID-19 In Colombia

A statue in one of the town’s main plazas, dedicated to the many social and community leaders in the region who have been murdered since the mid-1990s for their efforts to improve their communities, reclaim their land, protect their territories, and resist the forced displacement of their communities for agribusiness and resource extraction projects or due to the incursions of illegal armed groups.

Although the species is abundant and widely distributed throughout its natural range (from the southern United States through Mexico and Central America to Colombia) and has also been introduced to other regions (including the Caribbean, Africa and Asia), LINK it is possible that due to the particular ecological and climatic conditions of the region the phenotype that occurs along Colombia’s Pacific coast is particularly potent in terms of its anti-viral properties. This is just one of many aspects that urgently require further investigation and analysis.

In recent times there have been an increasing number of reports concerning companies that are developing pills and capsules that they claim will be useful complements to the campaign against the COVID pandemic. Such developments must be welcomed and encouraged, the more remedies that are available the better. Though at least in some cases it raises the question: how or where have the companies obtained the chemicals and compounds that comprise the main active components of the remedies? Maybe some of them are derived from the medicinal plants used by the traditional healers of the region’s Indigenous and Afro-American communities? Maybe over time it will be possible to analyse and track the origin of the source materials for the formulas that are being developed, this would certainly be an interesting exercise.

While every well-intentioned and organized effort directed at combatting the COVID pandemic must be supported and encouraged, and the companies involved have invested a lot of time and resources into the research and development of their emerging products, if it turns out that some of them are derived from or have as a principal component the medicines used by traditional healers this primary and substantial original contribution must be acknowledged and compensated.

And one more thing: it is possible that some of these new medicines being developed would be more potent taken in their natural form, where a large number of active constituents may be involved, and this also merits investigation where relevant. In general terms, the companies are not necessarily interested in the utilization of such remedies in their natural form because it is more difficult to obtain an advantage in the market and control the production of the medicine.

References

  • Bennett, B, Balick, M, Laird, S, (eds), 1996, Medicinal Resources of the Tropical Forest: Biodiversity and Its Importance to Human Health
  • Jaime Rivas, 2021, La Herencia de Nuestros Mayores: Cuentos sobre la historia de la costa pacífica de Nariño
  • Luis Fernando Botero Villegas, 2008, Vida, Misión y Legado de Yolanda Cerón
  • Odile Hoffmann, 2010, Identidad negra en la ciudad : detrás de las apariencias, en Séverine DURIN, Etnicidades urbanas en las Américas : procesos de inserción, discriminación y políticas multiculturalistas pp.99-115
  • Ricardo Oviedo Arévalo, 2009, Relatos, revueltas y desventuras de la gente entintada del Pacífico Sur
  • Secretaria de Salud, 2020, Integración de las MTCI, con estrategias interculturales y de fortalecimiento de la salud en la respuesta ante el COVID en México, Dirección General de Planeación y Desarrollo en Salud, Dirección de Medicina Tradicional y Desarrollo Intercultural. Document available at:
  • https://www.gob.mx/salud/acciones-y-programas/medicina-tradicional-y-desarrollo-intercultural

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IMHO

You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to see the problem. More drugs is not the answer to the real problem.

When you live in fear it’s hard to see that your fear is the problem. And you only make things worse by trying to fix what you don’t understand.

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