Trinidad & Tobago: Traditional healers seek official recognition

by Wesley Gibbings

Port of Spain, May 27 -- Herbal medicine practitioners are clamouring for greater official recognition of their craft and at least one leading herbalist is calling for new legislation that would decriminalise some current practices.

Researcher Francis Morean says the majority of traditional healers operating in the country currently do so "outside of the law".

"This is something we have to deal with," he tells IPS. Many herbal remedies prescribed by practitioners do not have official food and drug regulatory approval.

"Traditional healers in Trinidad and Tobago continue to operate in something of a twilight zone and a grey area of political indecisiveness," Morean says.

"This, in itself is very ironic when we consider that almost half the population are of Indian descent and the government in India itself is supportive of herbal medicines.

"Then the majority of the other half of the population has ancestors from West Africa where there is great tolerance of traditional healers," he adds.

Aromatherapist, Nisha Ojar - who is not associated with Morean's campaign - says the use of traditional medicine is gaining in popularity in the country and that there is growing confidence in herbal and other natural remedies.

"What I have found as a practitioner is that with aromatherapy it has physical, psychological and spiritual effects," she says.

"Aromatherapy is now being acknowledged by people. It is trickling back into the Caribbean," she adds.

She says traditional medicine is, in the Caribbean, "never the first choice" and that many people turn to it to supplement other courses of treatment.

The British-trained aromatherapist however warns that it is important for practitioners to "know what they are doing" since there are dangers associated with the improper use of herbs and such remedies.

"You can do more harm than good if you do not know how to make a proper diagnosis and prescribe the correct remedy," she says.

Morean says he believes herbalists have been practising their craft with distinction over the years but not with a lot of recognition. "The time has come," he says, "for us to begin to treat our traditional healers as very important persons in our society.

"We continue to ignore these living libraries to our collective peril. This is quite ironical and is also reflective of the ambivalent attitudes towards many aspects of our daily life, especially the environment," he says.

Herbal medicine has however enjoyed relatively passive support from the medical community here, but there are a number of local doctors who practise both traditional and modern forms of medicine.

Recent concern over the incidence of infertility among women has served as fillip to the work of the herbal remedy community.

Morean cites the dangers of modern medicine in the treatment of infertility saying there are too many risks.

"There are many safer, cheaper and easily available alternatives which are available right here in Trinidad and Tobago," he says.

"These alternatives lie in the wealth of healing herbs which can be found in the nation," he adds.

"It is quite easy for orthodox professional health care workers to dismiss such claims as old-wives tales. This attitude, however, does not take into account the fact that thousands of women in this nation have benefitted from the healing powers of indigenous herbs."

Tumeric (Curcuma domestica), for example, is one of the more widely used herbs by women following child-birth and Morean suspects there is widespread use of the herb by many other women in the country.

There is also an extract from the bark of the Ebois bande tree which had long gained popularity for its effectiveness in the treatment of impotence.

Doctors have often, however, issued warnings about the use of the bark since there have been documented cases of men suffering from painful erections that will not go away after they have used the drug.

"There are dangers," Ojar warns. "Herbs and natural remedies have their place, but their administration and use should be left to the experts." (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).