Resilience Dispatch #6: Indigenous Knowledge

Jun 1, 2020

In this edition

This week’s Resilience Dispatch brings you a fascinating story about how a US-based company, Napo Pharmaceuticals, is working with indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to develop promising new drugs derived from the Sangre de Drago (“Dragon’s Blood) tree. These communities have long understood the tree’s medicinal benefits, which Napo Pharmaceuticals is now harnessing to treat conditions including cholera and side effects of managing AIDS and chemotherapy.

I found it a powerful lesson on the value of indigenous knowledge and forest biodiversity, at a time when these communities and Amazon forests are under incredible pressure. COVID-19 is taking a terrible toll on indigenous elders, as you may have read in the news this week. There is so much still to learn. We can’t afford to lose these healers and – as Dr. Steve King puts it – “elder statesmen” (and women!) of the world’s biodiversity.

Here at Forest Trends, we have been working quickly in the last few weeks to raise funds and redirect existing resources to better support our indigenous partners. As always, please get in touch if you have thoughts on working together with Forest Trends on this critical mission.

My best,


A Statement from the Forest Trends Team on Injustice, Violence, and Discrimination

We all deserve to live in safe, healthy communities. The past several months have glaringly highlighted the unacceptable inequities in our society and the extent to which our inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not shared by all of us.

The murder of unarmed black men and women like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police is intolerable. The outsized toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on African American and indigenous communities is unconscionable.

We also recognize similar patterns among our neighbors in the global South; in Brazil, which now counts the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, we are seeing a dramatic increase in violence and discrimination against Amazonian communities. And we recognize these same patterns in the distribution of environmental harms and climate change impacts – black, Latino, Hispanic, and indigenous communities are consistently, disproportionately exposed.

We are incensed, heartbroken, and deeply troubled.

These injustices are more than current events; they are the result of the systematic, institutionalized dehumanization of people of non-white/non-European descent over hundreds of years. A just, climate-secure future therefore depends on recognizing and addressing systemic racism.

At Forest Trends, we work to build nature-based solutions for a just, climate-secure future. This work is powered by the ability of unusual partnerships—across government, business, civil society, and local communities—to make forests worth more standing than destroyed.

The future we believe in, built on these partnerships, is incompatible with the egregious injustices exposed by recent events, especially here in the United States.

We are committed to working with you to confront these injustices. For those out there protesting injustice, discrimination, and violence, please know that we stand with you. Stay safe.

[Leer in español aquí]

How Indigenous Technology Can Drive New Discoveries In Western Medicine

Forest Trends’ Beto Borges, Director of our Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative, talks to Dr. Steve King, Napo Pharmaceuticals’ EVP of Sustainable Supply, Ethnobotanical Research & IP in a wide-ranging conversation on indigenous technology, a game-changing new drug developed from an Amazonian tree, and the next frontier in scientific discovery.

Dr. Steve King, Napo Pharmaceuticals
Beto Borges, Forest Trends
Beto Borges: 

Steve is a leading ethnobotanist, working with Napo Pharmaceuticals and Jaguar Pharmaceuticals to develop pharmaceutical business ventures based on forest biodiversity. Steve, in your experience, can that be profitable?

Steve King:

One of the visions we have is for plant products derived from the Sangre de Drago tree (Croton lechleri) that can be used to treat several serious health conditions, like cholera or severe diarrhea, which is especially prevalent in those managing AIDS and chemotherapy symptoms. These products can also be used for digestive issues in cattle, dogs, and horses. These could be game-changing alternatives, especially because the western drugs typically used to manage digestive distress (and many other health problems) can be addictive, expensive, and have serious side effects.

Because the active compound cannot be recreated in a laboratory setting, we needed to work with indigenous and local community partners to sustainably manage the tree that produces it. Partners in multiple locations of the Peruvian Amazon taught us how to grow, harvest, and reforest the tree using agroforestry techniques. It doesn’t require clearing large areas of land to produce and is a fast-growing tree. We continue to depend on their knowledge and management.

This was how you and I met, Beto. Beto was there working for the Rainforest Action Network at the time. He learned and helped us lay out management approaches for the different communities we’re sourcing from.

Partners with Sangre de Drago seedlings, Central Selva, Peru. Credit: Steven King

Beto Borges:

It amazes me that it’s May 2020 and we still have access to this massive body of ancient knowledge in the form of elders. They are the holders of traditional wisdom in communities.

We have been concerned for some time about the loss of elders and less knowledge exchange with younger generations. We are even more concerned about losing elders to the pandemic. Humanity risks losing this knowledge forever. During your career as an ethnobotanist, you met so many of these elders. What could be the impact of these losses? What are your concerns?

Steve King:

Those people have knowledge – about plants, ecosystems, interrelationships, healing compounds – that nobody else has. It’s not documented [in writing]. It would be a huge loss to humanity, to science, to all of us. Those elders should be treated as elder statesmen, national treasures, and humanity’s guardians of knowledge. Many are dying from COVID-19 – they need to be helped, taken care of, provided for. And then, if they choose, given the opportunity to share with other cultures.

I think the marriage of traditional and technological wisdom could be the birthplace of great discoveries that could benefit everyone. We westerners tend to have this bias and hubris that our way is the best and only form of technology. This is a mistake. By listening to, honoring, and carefully observing indigenous peoples, we find there’s a deep level of technological knowledge that is inaccessible to us. Especially when it comes to the forest, ecosystems, and the use of plants.

Read the full conversation on our Viewpoints blog.

Forests as Pharmacies: A Field Guide

Intrigued? Learn more about the people and projects mentioned in Steve and Beto’s conversation.