by Abraham Lama

Lima, 2 Mar 2000 (IPS) -- One of every three Peruvians has turned to indigenous medicine at some point, say experts, emphasising that traditional knowledge about the chemical traits of plants and roots is a valuable resource that complements modern pharmacology.

"But it is also a science that is being lost due to the impact of trans-culturisation," pointed out Fernando Cabieses, a doctor and researcher who leads Peru's Institute of Traditional Medicine.

"Passed on from generation to generation through the oral tradition, this knowledge is beginning to be lost despite the fact that traditional Peruvian medicine gave the world quinine, which saved Europe from malaria, and later provided cat's claw, sangre de Grado, maca and many others," he added.

Cabieses, a specialist in neurology and cerebral medicine, is a pioneer in renewing appreciation of his country's traditional medicine. He began studying this indigenous knowledge in 1950 when he observed the cranial boring techniques of Incan doctors.

His book "Apuntes de Medicina Tradicional" (Notes on Traditional Medicine) is considered the most rigorous study of the issue and records in detail the medicinal plants of Peru's native flora.

The physician believes the Peruvian government and private companies must be made to understand the importance of protecting traditional medicine in its entirety, as cultural heritage and a valuable national resource.

Peruvian traditional medicine is extremely valuable as a healing alternative that "modern scientists must accept and study with humility and respect," he commented.

"A high percentage of those who are part of Peru's modern culture act as if only one form of medical knowledge exists, that practised by doctors trained in 'official' science, which dominates ideas of public health in most countries of the world," stated Cabieses.

But when one reads about ancient Egyptian or Greek medicine, or current medicine in China or India, it is necessary "to redefine the term 'medicine' or, in anthropological terms, treat it as a medical system."

Traditional Peruvian medicine is a "medical system, because it does not involve isolated knowledge about the healing properties of some elements, but forms part of a doctrine of health, illness and the relationship between humans and nature," he explained.

Psychiatrist Elia Eizaguirre pointed out that if traditional medicine is understood as a system, some of its aspects, often seen as "magical" or simply ritualistic, take on great importance and meaning.

"The pharmacological effectiveness of most natural substances used by healers or shamans - who some scorn as witch doctors - has been proven," she asserted.

"But we physicians must recognise that the psychological techniques involved in the rituals are equally important therapeutic tools for channelling the emotions of the ill and reinforcing their will to recover," Eizaguirre added.

According to Cabieses, when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Peru, Incan medicine was superior to Europe's, "to the point that the chief of the conquering armies, marquis Francisco Pizarro, sent his surgeons home and turned to the Quechua doctors because they were more effective."

But he stresses that Andean medicine was enriched by ideas coming from medieval Europe, and both have a strong religious undercurrent. Peru's healing traditions later also adopted techniques from popular African and Chinese medicine as well.

The work done by experts in traditional medicine has now won official recognition and has caught the attention of local and foreign investors who are interested in uncovering new healing substances in order to manufacture and market them.

The Institute of Traditional Medicine, under Peru's Health Ministry, opened its doors six years ago in Iquitos, the country's largest Amazonian city. The institute has projects underway that involve growing and studying more than 600 medicinal plants.

A germplasm bank can be found at the institute, containing 120 selected species. The research centre will soon begin reproducing another 500 medicinal plants belonging to 104 families and 332 botanical categories - all part of the biological wealth of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. (SUNS4621)