- The Brazilian savanna contains almost a third of Brazil’s biodiversity but less than 10% is officially protected and its native vegetation is threatened by a rapidly-advancing agricultural frontier.
- Much of the flora and fauna remain unknown to conventional science.
- A network of traditional healers is at the forefront of finding ways to protect, sustainably manage, and document the biodiversity based on their in-depth knowledge of medicinal plants.
- Experts say that finding ways to value the savanna more, such as through recognizing its immense botanical and pharmacological value, could aid in its conservation.
Since Lucely Pio was a little girl, she has been collecting medicinal plants in the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savanna. At 5, she walked through the grasslands and forests of the Cerrado with her grandmother, a midwife and healer, who taught her about where to find and how to harvest the thousands of different plants that only existed there. When picking leaves and flowers, they would arise in the dark hours of the morning, before the sun came up. To harvest bark and roots, they would leave later, collecting them in the brightest hours of the day, but only during the waning moon. Some plants they harvested only once a year.
Several decades later, Pio, now a traditional healer, or raizeira in Portuguese, still relies on her grandmother’s wisdom when she goes out to collect plants.
“We call the Cerrado a living pharmacy,” she tells Mongabay in an interview. “If you walk over an area, you will find at least 10 medicinal species there alongside all the fruits.” She continues to document and experiment, carrying her knowledge forward to the next generation. “As I continue to study I’ve learned to make my own formulas,” she says. “They are the medicines I use today. It is science, but science based on the knowledge of my grandmother.”
Scholars increasingly see this kind of traditional knowledge as crucial to conserving and sustainably using landscapes, including the Cerrado, one of the oldest biomes in the world and now one of the most threatened. As large-scale agriculture destroys native Cerrado vegetation for soybeans, sugarcane and cattle ranching, it isn’t just biodiversity and carbon storage that are at risk: traditional knowledge systems, including traditional medicine and the vast amount of information they hold about the plants of the Cerrado, are also threatened.
“All knowledge about Cerrado plants is still very limited,” says José Antônio Ribeiro Neto, a biotechnology researcher who works with the Federal University of São João Del Rei and the State University of Minas Gerais studying the pharmacological properties of Cerrado plants. “In general, the widely studied plant species make up less than 3% of the flora known worldwide and this is especially true for the Cerrado as the Brazilian biome that suffered the most from human expansion.”
The Pacari Network, a group of traditional healers, has become a valuable resource for documenting and researching this immense biodiversity. These raizeiras and raizeiros (“root healers” in Portuguese) cultivate and harvest medicinal plants and provide vital health care to thousands of people every month. Their healing practices stem from a mixture of Afro-Brazilian, Indigenous, and mestizo cultural backgrounds. By organizing themselves around the conservation of medicinal plants and following standards to ensure their knowledge is passed down effectively, they are on the front lines of generating and preserving this kind of traditional knowledge.
Providing services beyond health care
Situated in the center of Brazil, the Cerrado is the country’s second-largest biome, after the Amazon. It covers 204 million hectares (504 million acres) over eight Brazilian states, an area three times the size of Texas. Over centuries, thousands of endemic species have adapted to the nutrient-poor soils, harsh environment, and seasonal fires that have created dozens of different habitats. More than 12,400 plant species have been documented in the Cerrado, a third of which are endemic, and it contains 30% of all Brazilian biodiversity.
The monkey nut (Anacardium humile), a small shrub that produces an acidic, cashew-like nut, is one example this rich biodiversity. Traditional healers make a tea from its roots to use as a purgative, and another tea from its leaves to use as an antidiarrheal. They press the fruit into a juice to treat venereal diseases and use the oil against skin ailments like warts.
Healers might also look for a plant in the custard apple family sometimes called donkey fruit (Xylopia aromatica) that grows mainly in the central Cerrado grasslands. Every part of the plant is used. The stem bark has anti-inflammatory properties, and the fruit can be used to treat stomach problems. A compress is used to treat hemorrhoids. Ground and roasted seeds are used as an aphrodisiac, and can also be used to treat intestinal parasites and fevers. Various species of the Aristolochia genus, made up of vines and herbaceous plants that grow on the edges of forests with pitcher-like flowers, are used to treat snakebites and fevers, as well to treat arterial hypertension and as a sedative.
For generations, traditional peoples and communities have used this rich diversity to treat a wide range of ailments. Considering that two of Brazil’s three poorest states are in the Cerrado, the health services that traditional healers provide is critical for many rural residents.
“It is important to recognize that there is a complementarity between modern medicine and traditional health practices and that this contributes to the health and well-being of local communities,” Sofia Zank, an ethnoecologist at the Federal University of Santa Catarina who has researched the relationship between humans, the environment and health systems in the Cerrado, tells Mongabay in an interview. “In the context of primary health care, it is important that formal systems include and value local specialists — such as healers, midwives, root healers, among others — and their knowledge.”
But as monocrops like soy, eucalyptus and sugarcane continue to expand into native Cerrado vegetation along with rapid environmental, social, economic and political changes, the availability of medicinal plants on a regional level is threatened. “Before, you used to walk 5 km [3 miles] to get a plant,” Pio tells Mongabay. “Today you have to walk up to 50 km [30 mi], and it can’t be close to the field. Especially the fields that [they] irrigate with planes, they can spread the poison [pesticides] up to 200 meters [660 feet] so you have to walk very far to find the plants.”
Since the 1970s, industrial agriculture has expanded dramatically in the Cerrado, with deforestation rates sometimes double that of the Amazon in the last decade. Now only half of the native vegetation remains, and what is left is severely fragmented, says Marcelo Kuhlmann, a biologist who has worked for a decade and a half documenting the flora and fauna of the Cerrado. Currently, just over 8% of the Cerrado is officially protected, and farmers must legally conserve much less of the native vegetation than in other biodiverse biomes like the Amazon.
“There are thousands of species in our flora, many of them with food, medicinal and landscape potential and that shelter thousands of species of animals, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates,” Kuhlmann tells Mongabay. But today, “there are already hundreds of species of plants and animals from the Cerrado included in the Official National List of Endangered Species.” This means that numerous species already identified or still to be cataloged with important medicinal properties are being rapidly lost.
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published the most comprehensive study ever conducted into the state of nature worldwide, showing that 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction by human activities and declining at a rate never before seen in human history. It also showed that land managed by Indigenous and local communities is on average much less degraded and that more support and resources should be put into facilitating their positive contributions to sustainability. This is also true of the Cerrado, where scholars have argued that the maintenance of cultural and Indigenous knowledge is crucial for the preservation of the savanna’s biodiversity.
“Indigenous populations and traditional communities, such as the raizeiras and raizeiros, have deep links with the environment and depend on that environment for the maintenance of their cultural practices, which includes health practices,” Zank says. “This vast knowledge about biodiversity passed on through the generations is crucial for the conservation of species, as well as for the quality of life of communities that depend on these environments.”
Now, biologists, ecologists and ethnobotanists also argue that increased awareness of the potential medicinal benefits of species found in the Cerrado could be an important way to garner popular and federal support for halting agricultural expansion and conserving the remaining tracts of native vegetation.
Connecting health care and conservation
The Pacari Network stands out as a model for how to facilitate knowledge sharing in ways that benefit both people and nature. The network was formed in 1999 by two civil society networks: the Cerrado Network, an umbrella organization that brings hundreds of civil society organizations together working for the promotion of sustainable development and conservation of the savanna, and the Medicinal Plants Network of South America. They came together to address the twin issues of biodiversity conservation and preserving the practices of traditional healers.
Jaqueline Evangelista Dias, who has worked for decades at the intersection of women’s issues and medicinal plants, was part of that first meeting and has been part of the Pacari Network since its inception. “The first challenge was getting resources and infrastructure to organize the raizeiras,” she tells Mongabay in an interview.
They focused first on networking and capacity-building, especially in the areas of improving sanitary methods, best practices for harvesting and storage, and research and documentation. Ten years after they began, they produced what Evangelista Dias says is one of the biggest and most important efforts of the group: the Pharmacopeia of People of the Cerrado.
The almost 400-page book was produced by more than 260 raizeiras and raizeiros and provides written and visual descriptions of harvesting and processing techniques for 90 medicines. Written like an encyclopedia, it describes not only the plants, but their medicinal uses and sociocultural importance and relationship to the Cerrado.
“It is our bible,” says Pio, a representative of the network, only half-joking.
The decision to call it a pharmacopoeia, usually used to designate a book published by the government that provides standards of strength and purity for therapeutic drugs, was a deliberate one, says Evangelista Dias. The official Brazilian Pharmacopeia lacks examples of native plant remedies, and the Pacari Network wanted to demonstrate the rich variety in that field and the deep knowledge of the relationship between traditional healers and medicinal plants.
The book, published in 2009, gained the Pacari Network worldwide recognition and the U.N.’s prestigious Equator Prize in 2012.
“That was an important moment for us, it strengthened the network and gave us an important visibility nationally and internationally,” says Evangelista Dias, who now serves as technical advisor to the Pacari Network.
In 2014, the network published a second collaborative book. The Biocultural Community Protocol outlines collectively defined criteria for good practices in preparing home remedies and sanitary techniques in community pharmacies, along with the sustainable collection and cultivation of medicinal plants. It was the first of such protocols to be published in Brazil and was distributed around the world, as far as India and Japan.
Perhaps more importantly, it also created a tangible political instrument that could be used in public policymaking to achieve legislation that guarantees customary rights for people like the raizeiras. Nationally, it helped elevate the Pacari Network, according to Evangelista Dias, allowing its members to participate actively in the formulation of the new law on biodiversity. This law regulates access to the genetic information and knowledge of plants used by traditional communities and spells out financial and research terms of national and international collaborations.
The network, the majority of whose members are women, has now helped more than 200 communities create community pharmacies, according to Pio. As they continue to grow, she says, so will the value of the Cerrado for everyone else. For her, it’s logical.
“Imagine if I arrive at your house and you have jatobá tree planted on your door but you don’t know what it is. When I say ‘look at this tree, the bark is used for medicine for the flu, for the prostate and the root is medicine for the spine,’ what will you do?” she asks rhetorically. “You will think, ‘I will take care of this tree, it is very important to me,’ and you will protect it.”
Gabriela Loureiro contributed to this reporting.
Various species of the Aristolochia genus grow in the Cerrado. They are widely used in traditional medicine, but their habitat is under threat by soy, eucalyptus, and sugar cane production.Photo Credit: Marcelo Kuhlmann/ Attractive Fruits of the Cerrado.