ALN logo; link to Arid Lands NewsletterHome page No. 48, November/December 2000
Linkages between Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity

Conservation and ethnobotanical programs of the Bioactive Agents from Dryland Biodiversity of Latin America Project

by Barbara Hutchinson, Enrique Suarez, Renee Fortunato, Ana Maria Beeskow, Robert Bye, Gloria Montenegro, and Barbara Timmermann

"Collaborations with local municipalities and citizens have resulted in a wide variety of conservation and economic development programs including reforestation, restoration of polluted habitats, propagation of native species, establishment of medicinal plant gardens, seed banks, and city and school parks. This article provides a sampling of some of the project's major conservation and economic development efforts on behalf of local communities in the project's areas of activity."

Project overview

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The Bioactive Agents from Dryland Biodiversity of Latin America project is an extension of a research project begun in 1993 with funding from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) program. This program is sponsored by a consortium of U.S. federal agencies, now including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is coordinated by NIH's Fogarty International Center. It addresses biodiversity conservation and the promotion of sustained economic development through drug discovery from natural products using ethnobotanical information wherever possible. The first project (1993-1998), titled Bioactive Agents from Dryland Plants of Latin America, was one of five awards granted under the ICBG program. The second project (1998-2003) is one of six.

Headed by Principal Investigator Barbara N. Timmermann, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Arizona's College of Pharmacy, the project involves collaborations in the U.S. with the G.W.L. Hansen's Disease Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; American Home Products Corporation's Wyeth-Ayerst Research Laboratories and American Cyanamid Company; and other units at the University of Arizona (Office of Arid Lands Studies and Department of Management Information Systems). Partners in Latin America are scientists from the Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile; from the Instituto de Recursos Biológicos, Buenos Aires; the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia; and the Centro Nacional Patagonico, Chubut, in Argentina; and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, in Mexico.

The successful collaboration of the members of this ICBG project required detailed international agreements among the various participants which defined work and funding commitments, ownership of materials, licensing rights and distribution of future financial benefits, if any. In addition, the project was designed so that plant collections, inventories, and other activities are in agreement with the appropriate domestic and international laws, such as laws on endangered species (CITES) and plant conservation. Necessary permits and licenses are obtained from local authorities and from landowners if private land is involved.

This international project seeks to discover and develop pharmaceuticals and crop-protection agents from plants and microbes of arid and semi-arid ecosystems in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. While plants and microbes from arid ecosystems are well known to produce a variety of natural products as defensive agents and poisons, they have received much less attention than those from the tropical rainforests as potential sources of useful biological agents. Despite the commonly held perception that they are unproductive and desolate, dryland environments are diverse in character and support one-fifth of the world's population. More than 80 percent of people living in tropical and subtropical drylands are rural and are largely dependent on local plant resources for food, fuel, shelter, medicines, and many other products. Thus, it is essential to work for the preservation and conservation of these resources as well as to document what is known about them.

In addition to scientific study, the project has two other major components. An Information Management and Dissemination component has been an integral part of the project from the beginning. It has resulted in a number of products including a project newsletter and web site; a plant catalog database and GIS system; and a web-based image database. Related to these activities has been a strong technology transfer effort involving the purchase of computers for each participating institution and a series of training workshops in database management and geographic information systems (GIS).

The final component of the project focuses on economic growth and conservation of biological resources in areas where the plants are collected, and involves local populations wherever possible. These activities focus on collecting indigenous knowledge about the plants and their uses and working to conserve biological resources through educational programs. Project ethnobotanists not only collect plant information, but conduct research on topics such as medicinal plants, edible plants, vegetable dyes, traditional agriculture, and sustainable management of plant resources. The results of this research are shared with local community people who have provided information to the project. This exchange of information builds trust and an atmosphere of collaboration where both parties benefit. Sharing research information also demonstrates to the community the value of their cultural knowledge to others and provides them with the means to assess economic development projects and evaluate government actions. It also creates a historical record of community knowledge that can be shared with future generations.

Collaborations with local municipalities and citizens have resulted in a wide variety of conservation and economic development programs including reforestation, restoration of polluted habitats, propagation of native species, establishment of medicinal plant gardens, seed banks, and city and school parks. This article provides a sampling of some of the project's major conservation and economic development efforts on behalf of local communities in the project's areas of activity.

Conservation and ethnobotanical efforts in Argentina

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In Argentina, plants are collected in the cold deserts and steppes of Patagonia, High Andes, and Subarctic as well as Insular Monte and Chaco phytogeographical regions. Only species with healthy and abundant plant communities are prospected in these areas. In all cases, herbarium specimens are collected for classification by taxonomists and are distributed to the herbaria of all collaborating institutions, as well as to other major herbaria in the world including the U.S. National Herbarium, the Smithsonian, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the United Kingdom.

The collection trips also contribute to understanding ecosystem diversity and processes of environmental deterioration in the prospected areas. As specimens are collected, a variety of data is noted including: longitude, latitude, and elevation of the collection site; plant phenology and growth; type of soil; other species growing in the population; and such human impacts as fire, grazing, clear-cutting, and firewood collection. These data are provided to the various herbaria and are also added to the Patagonia and Chaco Biodiversity regional flora projects conducted by the Instituto de Recursos Biologicos (INTA). These projects contribute to the ongoing efforts of INTA to build their herbarium collection, which dates from the 19th Century, and to add to the National Gene Bank. By creating a historic record for these plants, analysis of geographic distribution of collections is possible. This provides insights into biodiversity variations through time and gives an indication of endangered and potentially endangered species so that informed conservation priorities can be established.

thumbnail image of people planting
Thumbnail link to image of people working on botanical park, ~27K file

Another result of this ICBG project has been the development of a botanical park for Extra-Andean flora in collaboration with the Centro Nacional Patagónico (CENPAT). In 1997, the Jardin Botanico de la Patagonia Extrandina was established in Puerto Madryn, Chubut, on part of CENPAT's coastal and sand dune property. This area is home to important varieties of native plants characteristic of this type of environment and was chosen to facilitate sand dune stabilization efforts. The park also has specific aims in terms of collections and of educational and scientific programs. They are to:

  1. document, conserve, and exhibit live collections of native species from Extra-Andean Patagonia;
  2. preserve examples of rare and endangered endemic species;
  3. identify and preserve native species with economic potential (medicinal, forage, ornamental, etc) and cultural relevance;
  4. maintain collections of those species that control the stability or recuperation of the ecosystem;
  5. promote in situ preservation and the recuperation of degraded areas;
  6. investigate subjects linked to the propagation and cultivation of native species; and
  7. investigate traditional uses of plants and their cultural connotations.

Many activities are underway in each of the targeted areas of interest. The park has ongoing campaigns for collecting vegetative material for documentation, conservation, and propagation of Patagonian species. Collection areas have included the north central and southern parts of Chubut, and the northern sector of Santa Cruz province. The park now has an herbarium for scientific consultation and for exhibiting material to the general public. Currently, the collection numbers 1,000 examples in the herbarium and another 250 examples of live plants. A duplicate herbarium at the Patagonia National University at Trelaw City also is maintained. Systematic classification of the collected material is underway in the Vascular Plants Department at the University.

Other activities conducted at the botanical park are tests of direct sowing methods, plant division, and stem cutting on 30 native species of Patagonia. In cooperation with the Physiology Department at Cuyo National University, Mendoza City, in vitro propagation techniques are also being perfected. In addition, germination trials have already been carried out with 13 native shrubs. Based on the collection of information on traditional uses and research on ethnocultural connotations of native vegetation, the publication A Catalog of Useful Patagonian Plants has been compiled and will be available for purchase soon.

Plans for the future include expansion of the park, additional public outreach activities, identification and preservation of other areas of natural vegetation, reintroduction of native species in degraded areas, and research on aspects of reproduction of native species.

Conservation and ethnobotanical efforts in Chile

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Project participants from Chile have been involved in numerous conservation programs related to this ICBG project. One of the first was to determine the plant origin of propolis (a resinous material collected by bees from tree buds and used as cement) from bee hives in central Chile. This was done by conducting microscopic analysis of pollen grains and leaf fragments as well as chemical analysis. This led to the identification of the plant species in the area which could provide an alternative income source for the local communities. Educational outreach programs were initiated to alert citizens to this potential opportunity.

A habitat restoration project also has been underway for several years in the foothills of the Andes, near Santiago. A degraded area was assigned by several municipalities of Santiago to the Laboratorio de Botanico Terrestre in the Departamento de Ecologia at the Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Chile to develop a botanical reserve for education and research. The objective is to restore the original vegetation to the area, which was destroyed by human impact, avalanches, and overgrazing. Plants for this project are propagated in greenhouses from seedlings and cuttings until the point when students in the laboratory can plant them in the field. To date about 50 native species have been re-introduced to the area. Recently, a new program was initiated to produce learning materials on the plants for distribution to local schools and visitors to the park.

In addition, a project on plant cataloging and conservation of medicinal plants was recently started in Colliguay in the V region of Chile, which lies within the mountains of the Coastal range. In situ and ex situ activities have been focused on in vitro propagation, the management of seeds and the establishment of stem cuttings, and greenhouse propagation of selected species in sites for conservation and habitat restoration activities. Field work in collaboration with local authorities, such as the President of the National Beekeepers Association, and with the local people living in the town, such as the group of women called the Hilanderas de Colliguay, was conducted to obtain material for ex situ conservation including living plants and seeds for local conservation programs and capacity building. In particular, plants used as dyes were collected and cataloged.

thumbnail image of woman dying yarn
Thumbnail link to image of Hilandera dying yarn, ~39K file

The Hilanderas are a group of women who use plant material, i.e. natural pigments, to dye fibers used in traditional handicrafts. Their techniques are being documented through this ICBG program, particularly in work to elucidate the chemicals responsible for the dyes and to understand the mechanism for giving a specific color. In exchange, the Hilanderas are being instructed in conservation and sustainable use of the native plants they use in the dying process. To this end, a workshop was held in October 1999 to teach the local women how to recognize local plant species, their mechanisms of growth, and the principles of wool coloring with plants. In addition, several field studies are underway to complete an inventory of the plant communities in the area.

Conservation and ethnobotanical efforts in Mexico

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In May 1995 the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), specifically the Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology, joined this ICBG project. Building on an already well-established program, staff members continued their work to develop collaborative projects with local communities, traditional healers, and indigenous families who collect medicinal plants. Contacts have been made in Zapotitlan Salinas, Puebla, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Oaxaca. One of the objectives of these collaborations is to develop "soft medicine" programs which include training and manufacture of herbal products on a community basis. Other objectives relate directly to the ICBG's goals of conservation and economic development.

The first step in UNAM's program is identifying target plants and geographic areas. Market surveys conducted in various regional and national economic centers provide data on plants which have been commercialized and those that have been identified as sources of income by the local people. After collecting various samples of these plants for botanical, phytochemical, and pharmacological studies and determining basic data on price, periodicity, and source, it is possible to trace each plant through the marketing system (i.e., back to sources as well as to larger markets). For instance, a drastic price increase for certain medicinal plants usually indicates scarcity and probable over- collection of these vegetal resources (Bye et al., 1987). Once these areas have been localized and contact made with the collectors and local authorities, a collaborative program is proposed. In some areas, cooperation with the productive and governmental sectors has been achieved, although with varied results; in others, such collaborations have not been possible.

Interaction with the community requires both an awareness of their needs and UNAM's limitations to respond to those needs. One effective method for assisting a community is to collaborate with local NGOs and educational institutions. This provides greater assurance that the project will be able to attend to needs within its capabilities and avoid creating false expectations. Because UNAM's main objective is to generate and promote knowledge, its sphere of influence is limited. Hence programs are focused on reevaluating traditional knowledge, creating a basis for communication between indigenous and occidental systems, and assisting in identifying options of interest to the community, including new products based upon traditional plants as well as other sources for economic support and growth.

Initial steps to promote education and communication were taken in Oaxaca in collaboration with the State Council of Traditional Medicine practitioners, the National Indigenous Peoples Institute (INI) and the Historic-Ethnobotanical Garden of Santo Domingo. During discussions for permission to sample the area's common medicinal plants for analysis, a workshop was requested and subsequently conducted to introduce the "curanderos" to occidental botanical terminology, bibliographic references and construction of a reference herbarium. Similarly, the school community of Batopilas, Chihuahua, expressed interest in teaching material on biological diversity that would be more appropriate for their region. Workshops for primary school children were carried out using material generated in other parts of Mexico. Also, examples of indigenous plants and animals along with locally available supplies were used so the children could continue to learn through their own creativity and resources. A suggestion from the Batopilas teachers for a forum to exchange such experiences with other teachers in the dry tropical forest resulted in teacher workshops of this nature in Jalisco and Chiapas, in coordination with educational institutions in those states and the Ecological Foundation of Cuixmala.

thumbnail of cooking maguey hearts
Thumbnail link to image of Mayo men cooking maguey hearts, ~38K file

In addition, at one of the collection centers for the marketing of medicinal plants in the southern Sonoran desert, Mayo Indians requested a workshop to recover the indigenous maguey (Agave spp.) heart-roasting process. Not only were the different species evaluated for their conservation requirements in collaboration with the Universidad de Sonora, but the younger generation had their first opportunity to prepare and sample a traditional food that had been abandoned during the last century. Species of maguey were identified for inclusion in the future community nursery that will also contain trees whose presence has declined but which provide raw material for handcrafts sold to tourists. Other plans include workshops in participating communities to set up low technology community seed banks in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In this way, seeds produced during exceptionally productive years will be stored and made available in times of shortage for cultivation and restoration. Duplicates of these seed collections might also be held in reserve at national and international seed banks with their use restricted to those who generated the material.

In community meetings in the dry pine-oak forests of the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Tarahumara Indians and mestizos identified various problems in the region needing attention. Of those presented, this ICBG has contributed to solutions for two such problems (i.e., rescue of endangered species and ecological restoration of riparian habitats) in collaboration with Model Forest Chihuahua and a small grant program (DGAPA) of UNAM. Protocols for endangered plant propagation have been developed (one of them for an endemic Chihuahuan spruce tree). The riparian restoration project has conducted workshops on various themes to bring together the inhabitants of the Sierra with the governmental authorities from the agricultural (INIFAP), water (CONAGUA), and environmental (SEMARNAP) agencies, as well as local and national universities. Plants selected at these workshops and propagated in the community nursery are being transplanted in eroded sites and home gardens. Certain medicinal plants have been cultivated to enrich the slopes above the stream beds so that the restored forests will have more value in the medium term than that of pulpwood in the long term. In collaboration with the José A. Llaguno Tarahumara Foundation, plans are underway to assist the Tarahumara in the production of simple herbal products in forms of tinctures, extracts, and creams to sell locally and with added value (thus eliminating the middleman in the marketing of raw materials). Should these products be of national interest, the botanical, chemical and pharmacological studies of UNAM and this ICBG project will be used in the registry process for the Mexican Pharmacopoeia and the Mexican public health system. A similar project is planned for the Sierra de Alvarez in the eastern edge of the desert of San Luis Potosí, with matching support from the Mexican Foundation for the Conservation of Nature.

A related effort by the Mexican Secretary of Environment (SEMARNAP) has been the establishment of Unidades de Manejo para la Conservación de Vida Silvestre (UMAs) to promote the conservation of biological diversity and the ecologically sound use of the landscape for the economic benefit of residents and landowners. To date, UMAs have concentrated on recreational and hunting activities. However, they may provide a possibility for formalizing a production unit related to medicinal plants. ICBG project participants in Mexico anticipate that sustainable harvesting of natural vegetation, combined with enriched, ecologically restored habitats, can provide an alternative land use offering direct economic benefits to resident communities.

Collaborative conservation outreach

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A considerable effort in this ICBG project has been directed towards informing the host country collaborators, governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as individuals in local communities and representatives of indigenous people, about the current status, progress and future activities of the project. Among the formats that have been the most successful are conferences, seminars, workshops, publications and conference proceedings in Latin America. Lectures are presented in Spanish and the proceedings and publications are written in both English and Spanish.

Three major events took place from 1996 to 1999. The "International Workshop on the Strategies for the Sustainable Development and Equitable Distribution of Benefits to be Derived from Botanical Species for Obtaining Pharmaceutical Products" was held at the Instituto de Recursos Biologicos at the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia Agropecuaria (INTA), Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 28 and 29, 1996. The objectives of this workshop were to increase the understanding and collaborations among the U.S. and Argentinean ICBG participants, to explore alternative methods to protect biodiversity, and to discuss the transfer of potential benefits from bioprospecting in agreement with local and national interests.

The "International Workshop on Environmental, Ideological, Ethical and Political Aspects in the Debate on Bioprospecting and Genetic Uses in Chile" took place in Vina del Mar, Chile, on October 8-10, 1996 during the 39th Annual Meeting of the Society of Biology of Chile and the 10th Annual Meeting of the Botanical Society of Chile. The results of this workshop were published in a Proceedings with input from the U.S. and Chilean collaborators as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations of Chile.

A theoretical and practical workshop on the "Conceptual Bases of Regeneration Models of Medicinal Plants" was organized by the Chilean ICBG collaborators and attended by U.S., Argentinean and Mexican counterparts. This event took place at the Centro Nacional Patagonico (CENPAT) in Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina on March 16-18, 1999. The workshop was heavily attended by students and professors from different universities and research institutions in Patagonia. Some of the subjects taught included the adaptive significance of the diversity of plant growth forms, plant growth cycles, adaptive significance of architecture in herbaceous plants, quantitative and qualitative phenomorphology, and regeneration models in terrestrial plants.

The text of the proceedings and the manual of the three events is available on the Latin American ICBG web page (see below). A workshop to discuss results and future conservation strategies is being organized by the botanical collaborators from Argentina, Chile and Mexico.


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Bye, R., N. Meraz Cruz and C.C. Hernández Zacarias. 1987. Conservation and development of food and medicinal plants in the Sierra Tarahumara, Chihuahua, Mexico. In Strategies for Classification and Management of Native Vegetation for Food Production in Arid Zones / Estrategías de Clasificación y Manejo de Vegetación Silvestre para la Producción de Alimentos en Zonas Aridas (E.F. Aldon, C.E. Gonzales Vicente, and W.H. Moir, Co-eds.) pp. 66-70, 246. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, General Technical Report RM-150.

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Author information

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Barbara Hutchinson, the principal author of this article, is director of the Arid Lands Information Center, Office of Arid Lands Studies, the University of Arizona. You can reach her for comments by email at
Ing. Agr. Enrique Suarez is Director of the Centro de Investigaciones de Recursos Naturales del Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA), Argentina; Renee Fortunato also works for INTA.
Biol. (Msc) Ana Maria Beeskow works at the Centro Nacional Patagónico (CENPAT).
Robert Bye is with the Jardin Botanico, Instituto de Biologia, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM).
Gloria Montenegro is a professor in the Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, Departmento de Ecologia, Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Chile.
Dr. Barbara Timmermann, the Principal Investigator of this project, is a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Pharmacy, The University of Arizona.

Additional web resources:

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Bioactive Agents from Dryland Biodiversity of Latin America
The web site for the project described in this article.

ICBG Program web site
This web site contains more information about the ICBG Program and all of its funded projects.

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