Case Study 4: Madagascar, Tephrosia purpurea - "150 Illnesses"
Case Study by Emily Barton
Madagascar is recognized worldwide as a vast source of plants that provide vital ingredients for modern medicines. Madagascars medicinal plants cure a wide range of illnesses, from the everyday headache to a potentially fatal disease such as leukemia. Even more plants with medicinal value exist that are known only by the people native to its habitat. The Western world is becoming increasingly interested in these medicinal resources. However, they must be prevented from exploiting them, and owe it to the indigenous people who hold the valueable medicinal knowledge to compensate them for it. The distribution of this knowledge within the community must be known in order to adequately compensate indigenous people for it.
Tephrosia purpurea (Pioneer Enterprise, http://www.pioneerherbs.com/tephrosia_purpurea.htm)
In Madagascar, the distribution of indigenous knowledge was studied in regards to a specific medicinal plant, Tephrosia purpurea. Based on its reported uses and the depth of peoples beliefs in its effectiveness, it is likely to have important medicinal value. It could eventually be a target of pharmaceutical companies for bioprospecting.
In southeastern Madagascar, Tephrosia purpurea is a medicinal plant that is widely used by the Malagasy living in this region (Antanosy people). It is commonly known as "150 Maladies" in French, which means 150 illnesses, suggesting it cures that many. The distribution of the knowledge of this plant among people living in a village and in a town in southeastern Madagascar was studied. Using an interview technique, research was carried out to determine how many illnesses it is reported to cure, the various methods that it is prepared for use, and to evaluate the differences in its uses and the knowledge of it in a small village compared to a larger town.
Village of Evatra Photo by author
Fifteen people, chosen at random, in both Fort Dauphin and Evatra were interviewed to compare the usage of T. purpurea in a rural town to that in a small village in close proximity to it, respectively. To carry out this study 2 weeks were spent interviewing the inhabitants of Evatra, and the following 2 weeks doing the same in Fort Dauphin. Each subject was asked one standard set of questions designed to determine their general as well as detailed knowledge of T. purpurea (Appendix A). A complete list of all illnesses that the plant reportedly cures was compiled (Appendix B). Fort Dauphin is a town of over 25,000 people, located along the southeastern coast of the country. Although it is fairly small and isolated from larger towns or cities on the island, western influence was still evident through its level of development and the presence of such things as western medicines. In contrast, Evatra is a small village of 1300 people, located just 10 km up the eastern coast of Madagascar from Fort Dauphin.
The town of Fort Dauphin Photo by author
The most common method of preparing this plant was by boiling the entire shoot, and drinking the dark brown, bitter tea before a meal. This was usually done two to three times a day when one was sick until the illness was gone. However, there were some variations to this method. Just after giving birth, a woman takes a shower with the tea to put her body back in good form. Similarly, to cure a disease of the uterus, the Malagasy rub the water boiled with T. purpurea on the skin of the lower abdominal region. One subject said he used to drink T. purpurea tea each morning at an extremely hot temperature because this made him sweat, which removed the dirt from inside his body and cleansed his blood.
Mara, a woman interviewed in Fort Dauphin Photo by author
Two factors have the greatest effect on the number of people who use T. purpurea in each location. The first is the influence of western medicines, which is apparent through the availability of these medicines, or lack thereof, and the peoples beliefs about western medicine versus medicinal plants. The second is the indigenous peoples traditional knowledge of T. purpurea and its usage.
All interviewees in Fort Dauphin were very knowledgeable about this plant, but their belief in the effectiveness of medicinal plants was not strong. This is likely due to the western medicines available in the pharmacy, which have been tested in laboratories and scientifically proven to be effective. Their lack of belief in the effectiveness of medicinal plants versus western medicines is obvious since only 8 out of the 15 interviewed in Fort Dauphin use T. purpurea.
Tsima, a local fisherman interviewed in Evatra Photo by author
Almost all of the subjects interviewed in the small village of Evatra knew about T. purpurea, and almost all of them used it for medicinal purposes. For the most part, those who knew of this plant came from Fort Dauphin or were taught about it by someone from Fort Dauphin.
In summary, more knowledge on T. purpurea was found in the town of Fort Dauphin than the village of Evatra; however, the evidence that proves its medicinal efficacy was found primarily in Evatra. Inhabitants of Fort Dauphin did not have as much interest in using T. purpurea or medicinal plants in general, due to the presence of western medicines and the reputation they have that was brought with them from the western world.
Medicinal plants have cured the Malagasy people of innumerable diseases since long before any pharmaceutical drug was created. New plant related cures are still being discovered today. The leaf of a plant can contain just as much medicinal value as a pill sold in the pharmacy, yet it is lacking only in written evidence of its effectiveness. Although T. purpurea does not actually cure 150 illnesses, nor does it probably cure all 39 illnesses that were reported in the interviews (Appendix B), there is enough evidence to conclude that it effectively cures several illnesses, such as upset stomach, diarrhea, or backache, some of the more frequently reported illnesses. Perhaps one day, indigenous knowledge of the medicinal value of T. purpurea will be of interest to foreign scientists, who could eventually develop a drug from its unique medicinal compounds, and Evatra would be the site of this bioprospecting project. With the results found in this study on the structure of knowledge of T. purpurea in Madagascar, a pharmaceutical company bioprospecting this plant would be able to adequately compensate the Malagasy people holding this knowledge.