Most of the modern medicines we ingest today, like Aspirin, have come as a result of ancient medicines, nomadic civilisations and colonisation. The World Wars advance medicines and their creation, which, were a result of experimentation and ancient remedies.
New finds rely on science and its advancements, knowledge and the proliferation of it and the ability to experiment.
The entanglement of the politics and knowledge of making and creating remedies is referred to as bioprospecting, which involves the knowledge, sourcing of plants and the large pharmaceuticals which recreate these materials.
People and plants: a globalising relationship
Unlike animals or humans, plants cannot move from their attackers or extend their reach without help. In the absence of being able to move, plants have to rely on evolution to survive. Plants are impressive in that they can transform water, sunlight and soil to manufacture resources that sustain us, including medicines.
The chemicals plants produce is often for defence, to compel creatures to leave them alone, whether through bad smells or poison. However, some substances are to attract creatures necessary for reproduction or spreading their offspring. Attraction also made humans and animals alike their servant, to get rid of their predators and to cultivate them, perhaps for medicine, or taste or beauty.
Humans and animals rely on plants for their everyday life, like food, shelter, clothing, transport and more. The relationships between humans and plants is often stronger when comparing indigenous tribes and their environment (which they have occupied for years) and do not manufacture the plants in an industrial fashion.
Plants and vegetation also regulate the atmosphere, providing valuable oxygen and regulating the climate.
Michael Pollan, 2002
Explores the various ways plant life has migrated and globalised the world. About 100 million years ago Angiosperms came in to existence, species of flowering plants which are seed-bearing vascular plants. They are the most diverse group of land plants, with 416 families. The seeds were intended to be eaten and disseminated elsewhere.
Then about 10000 years ago a second coming of diversity came about through the invention of agriculture. The plants used species to move them, nurture them and destroy its predators. Edible grasses like wheat and corn incited humans to cut down forests and grow them. The relationship between plants and people is deeply entangled, and the immobility and biochemistry of plants plays a vital role in globalisation.
Ethnobotany is the study of interactions between people and plants. It focuses on the different ways in which individuals and groups and incorporated plants into their lives, and how plants are the material basis of human culture. The peoples Earth has much relied on the plants. Without plants regulating the atmosphere and providing food and energy, we would not exist.
Balick and Cox (1996)
Are ethnobotanists who explore how plants use indigenous people who follow traditional and non-industrial lifestyles, in areas occupied for generations. This is because the relationship between plants and indigenous people is easier to distinguish, i.e. the link between production and consumption.
The depth of entanglement is evident in the fact humans have superseded all other mechanisms as a migratory body for plants, dispersing their seeds. Before this it would have been the wind and wave currents, as well as using birds and other migratory animals.
Plate tectonics and Climate Change have played a role in the spread of plants also, i.e. plate movements have made proximate or distanced land masses, bring plants closer or further apart. Plants exist in some regions due to a change in temperature and then evolution with newer temperatures, like relict flora in the European While Elm in Western Siberia.
The migration of plants
The migration of plants by human intervention is often deliberate, like moving sugar cane, wheat and rubber to new markets. Looking throughout time most of these plants originate outside Europe and are imported in. The nations of Europe have benefitted from the transfer of useful plants. This is particularly important during the 15th and 20th centuries when nations were being built and required resources. Territories and flows play a large role in the globalisation of flows and flora. Flows both make and sustain territories, and this is no different with plant life.
Kew Gardens in London was one way to demonstrate imperialism and the various flows. It was built in 1844 – 48 to house tropical flora bought back from the Empire. This was to showcase wealth, novelty and more.
The Wardian case made travel of the plants from the tropics and the Empires possible, it was like a transportable greenhouse which protected plants from the dangerous elements like ocean winds and rain while travelling. This device was critical to the survival of and the migration of plants, which, could sustain life faraway. While the flow is apparent, the territory is less so.
It can be argued that plants are territories themselves, and indeed without plants, territories cannot form. Entangled flora and fauna life make territories emerge.
The flows of a plant
Humans have physically transported plants to various areas for various reasons, sustenance, shelter, medicine and more. This is physical flow of plants from A to B
Plants possess anatomical flows within them, converting carbon dioxide and water into a range of essentials like oxygen, medicine and more
Boundaries are drawn in a variety of ways, and borders define boundaries and what is contained and left out. Territories are defined and differentiated from the surroundings. Plants have a role in defining some boundaries, especially if flora occupies some regions. Flora as we have said cannot move as easily or as rapidly as say moving animals or humans (fauna).
The Wardian case is an example of a change in territories, like with imperialism, as flora can move – albeit not autonomously. The Wardian case can uproot plants, both literally and metaphorically, and can cut off the connection which would normally define existence. In order for something to flow easily, it cannot be attached to an object or land mass.
Bronwyn Parry (2004)
Globalisation determines the social and spatial dynamics of flows. Groups have the ability to access, acquire, harvest and monopolise goods. The process of sourcing goods, harvesting and then taking create the have and have nots. Bioprospecting, which is the search for species from which medicinal drugs and other commercially valuable compounds can be obtained, is causing the globalisation of plants.
Economic, technical and legal developments, are providing opportunities for the ‘territorialisation’ of plants, and opening new doors for flows and access. Such developments can make territories, and distinguish others. Some groups are more willing to access and source botanical medicines for their gain and profit. Some groups have more power than others to source botanical medicines, and now bioprospecting is heavily politicalised. This has exacerbated tensions, and deepened the lines of inequality.
Making bioprospecting profitable
Since the 1980s the world saw a global effort to accumulate biological matter, and it mirrors the effort in the Empire age. Between 1985 and 1995 it was estimated that 200 US organisations began new biological collection programmes,
Biodiversity plays a big role in bioprospecting, as it continuously offers new pharmaceutical products. Biodiversity is the diversity and variation amongst species, where new species are discovered every day and with further research can potentially discover cures, which, can be sold at profit.
Influential economists have leveraged biodiversity who seek to both put a value on biodiversity and that neoliberal capitalism, which was responsible for the extinction of species, could also save species.
Free Market Environmentalism (Eckersley, 1993) was the term coined for the profiteering on nature, to save nature they need to sell it. By pricing and privatising nature could result in its conservation. Some nations could be offered a new way to develop, in merchandising their biological assets, which were previously undervalued. Such nations who were economically poor, but biologically diverse, could find a development strategy in conversing nature and selling its diverse resources.
Brundtland Report (1987)
Was a creation from the UN commission into the idea of sustainable development, development which does not impact the future generations in a negative way.
These ideas gained institutional legitimacy and included a much broader audience as it became embedded in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This global architecture organised bioprospecting and made it possible and legitimate.
At this meeting, and its follow ups, it took the view that biodiversity needs to be conserved for its economic value, which is in alliance with biologists, researchers, policy makers and more. Everyone would benefit from conservation, the poorly developed nations and the wealthier ones too.
Since the 1950s most companies dedicated resources to creating synthetic compounds for medicine. This would be to target specific diseases or modifying existing compounds. By the 1980s this shifted to finding cures or new species to modify.
After this there were a series of developments to make plants seem profitable
Plants play an essential role in healthcare in treatments, ointments and cures. Prescription drugs contain plant extracts or principles from higher plants – at least 119 chemical substances are derived from 90 plant species
80% of the worlds inhabitants rely on traditional medicine for primary healthcare (Lewis, Medical Botany)
New technology which could measure or break up molecules more effectively.
Slowing innovation – people thought everything had been found out and accomplished.
Professor Walter Lewis of Washington University was awarded a substantial grant to research Peruvian medicinal plant sources for new pharmaceuticals. By the 1990s biodiversity and bioprospecting became fashionable and profitable, and this is how Professor Lewis attained funding.
The International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) had its beginnings in a workshop in Washington in 1991. It was organised by the UN National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Agency of International Development (USAID). It was concluded in these workshops that pharmaceuticals derived from tropical regions, could both promote economic growth in developing nations and conserve biological resources.
The CBD provides institutional encouragement to the globalisation of biodiversity and introduced a new requirement, of reciprocity in recognising inequalities and the power of collecting valuable resources. The South would therefore continue to supply resources in exchange of compensation, technology and more from the North – although this was contested. Of course southern delegations would agree to this agreement, but much to the dismay of the US dominated biotechnology lobby. In the terms of the Convention, the South could not get its way and simply restrict access, even though nation states do how the power to limit interactions.
The global commodification of plant resources came to head when plants were regarded as profitable resources, in exchange for benefits in return for their acquisition. During colonial times it would have been accepted for the North to simply take from the South. During post-colonial times, and with the entanglement of both the biophysical world and the markets which control development and power, plant commodification was the result.
Commodities are defined by:
A raw material which is deemed useful and valuable, which can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.
Items which can be placed in a context where they have exchange value
They can be disassociated from their producers or former users in order to be sold
Commodification therefore is the first form of territorialisation involved in bioprospecting, making the worlds medicinal plants available for commercial use. This involves a lot of flows, but in order for there to be flows, there must be territories.