We were fortunate to walk through a rain forest with a guide, native to the area. It was apparent how comfortable he was discussing the utilization of indigenous plants for health and disease. His discussion revolved around a common ancient theme, well known to practitioners of alternative therapies: Nature always has a cure. And if something is causing a problem or symptom, the solution is often nearby.
Our guide pointed out a black poison oak tree, telling us that contact with the poison wood sap causes blistering, swelling, itching and severe discomfort. Yet nearby was its so-called "twin" tree, the gumbolimbo (birch bark), usually found in the vicinity of the black poison oak tree. He went on to tell us that by simply cutting into the gumbolimbo's bark and placing the sap onto the affected area, the misery of dermatitis would be reduced. The same solution is good for sunburn, skin sores, rashes and measles. Taken as a tea, it's utilized for fevers, sun strokes, colds and flu.
Next we came upon the cryosophila stauracantha, the "give and take" tree. Its name refers to the spines of the palm, which "give" a very bad cut while other portions of the plant "take away" the problems that the same tree can cause. A simple remedy, yet a paradox.
"It's all here within our reach," our guide explained. He was obviously comfortable with the notion that ancient Mayan knowledge has never needed to be duplicated by modern science.
As we continued, we were escorted to a cockspur tree, part of the Acacia family, which he claimed was a good snake bite remedy. Bushmasters, knowledgeable about the uses of medicinal plants and animals, instruct a snake bite victim to chew on the bark of this tree, which they say will slow down the body's metabolism, allowing an additional 6 to 8 hours of time for a victim to seek medical help.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The idea of nature's healing isn't new. There's reverence for nature in all indigenous cultures. Almost 20 years ago, while visiting a temple in Taiwan, a plant was given to us by a monk. We were told that the plant, which looked similar to a flowering dandelion, would stop skin bleeding. We kept this gift for many years and used it to stop the bleeding after minor cuts while shaving and other incidents. It was a gift we'll never forget -- an indoctrination into ancient wisdom.
The practice of natural healing goes back thousands of years in Central America and throughout the world. In fact, the earliest known text on the subject of healing with medicinal plants, the Badianus Manuscript, was written by Aztec Indians in the year 1552 (mysteriously found in the Vatican Library in 1929). The text contains simple drawings of medicinal plants and the respective ailments they treat.
In Central America, information about medicinal plants and natural resources were passed down orally from generation to generation. The information was kept alive, often around fires and tribal gatherings, celebrations and ceremonies. Stories, myths and songs, designed to be easy to remember, often spoke of the ability of plants and nature to heal and save lives.
A Race Against Time
Today in Belize, unfortunately, much of nature's ancient medicinal knowledge is in danger of being lost. "Modern" ways of life have taken over, and the present-day generation has less information on the ways of the forest and its treasures. A small group of healers and their apprentices keep the wisdom alive -- but that might not be enough.
It's been estimated that less than 1/2 percent of the 250,000 species of higher plants have been adequately analyzed for medicinal use. From this small percentage come almost 25 percent of all prescription pharmaceuticals in use today.
Imagine the possibilities of all kinds of cures and treatments that exist within nature. Both medical and pharmaceutical companies are starting to recognize the value of indigenous knowledge and have begun to invest more significant time and money into further research.
The research and time allotment, however, tends to drive up the cost of medicine. We have to wonder if there's not a simpler solution to allow us to benefit less expensively from the thousands of years of "research" that indigenous cultures have already invested.