Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Getting a kick out of kickapoo

Someone is missing on the island this year. My neighbor Joe R., the bush doctor, a native Exumian. Joe's getting on in years and his health has gone poorly. He has left the island.

"Every plant has a remedy," says Joe. Aloe for joint pains. Banana leaf for fever. Jumbey as a sedative. Pond bush for prickly heat. Love vine for what the TV commercials call erectile disfunction.

All this lore is dying out. There are government clinics on the islands now, with MDs and pharmacies. Why take prickly pear for headache when you can get Excedrin at the market?

Many bush cures may "work" through the power of suggestion. But plants used for remedies can be poisonous, too. Many a sick person in the islands may have been made worse by sipping a strong bush tea.

Still, pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies are busily prospecting for bush medicines that in fact contain an active ingredient that effects the reputed cure. Nature has whipped up many more potentially useful chemical compounds than can be expeditiously contrived in the laboratory. Drugs and dietary supplements are big, big business, and it's always possible that some local remedy might be a gold mine.

Which raises the question of whether and how bush docs like Joe should be compensated for their lore. Is "bush medicine" protected by intellectual property rights? Do pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies have an ethical obligation to recognize these rights? Who gets the compensation? How is it distributed?

These are important matters for the bioprospectors, but right now it would just be nice to have Joe back, and maybe even a quaff of his all-purpose remedy/invigorator he calls (after Al Capp) kickapoo joy juice.