Jamaica: Priceless Native Plants Vanishing in the Wind

Zadie Neufville (*)

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 21 (IPS) — The recent successes of local medicinal researchers have turned the spotlight on local laws that fail to protect Jamaica’s rich biological diversity.

Two days after Lawrence Williams announced an international patent for an anti-cancer compound from the guinea hen weed, another local scientist Henry Lowe, announced that a compound from the Jamaican ball moss was ready for clinical testing – extracts from just two of the 334 Jamaican plants that have so far been investigated for medicinal properties.

Williams, a zoologist with the government-owned Scientific Research Centre (SRC), discovered a protein complex, dibensyl triulphide, which has the ability to kill a range of cancers including melanoma, lung and breast cancers, he told IPS.

Jamaican biochemist Dr. Lowe and his research partner Dr. Joseph Bryant’s impending clinical trial of a nutraceutical from the Jamaican ball moss or old man’s beard (Tillandsia Recurvata) for treating prostate cancer was greeted with excitement and some skepticism. Before now, the plant had been regarded by most Jamaicans as parasitic, overrunning trees and becoming a nuisance on power lines.

Many believe that such native plants could yield high quality medicinal or nutraceutical extracts much like the high quality of Jamaican coffee, cocoa, ginger and pimento. Now more than ever, Jamaican environmentalists are concerned that without adequate protection, local biodiversity is at risk of exploitation by rich nations or destruction by developers.

“There is nothing to protect plants. We have no Red List data,” biologist Andreas Oberli told IPS, referring to the absence of recent information for the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) list of threatened species.

Jamaica’s Natural Resource and Conservation Authority and the Wild Life Protection Acts, the pieces of legislation that govern the preservation of the island’s biological resources, are almost silent on plant species. Only plants that were listed in the past by the IUCN are covered, and flora on private lands do not benefit from even the limited protection of the acts.

The result, Oberli said, is that “much of the island’s biological treasures are being lost to development, especially in the coastal areas where pristine forests and caves are being destroyed to construct hotels.” In the hinterlands, farmers are destroying the forests, he said.

Jamaica’s rich biological diversity makes it fifth in the world in terms of endemism. But of the more than 3,300 species of flowering plants here, only 200 have been catalogued. According to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), charged with preserving the island’s biodiversity, about 923 of the known plants are found only in Jamaica.

Under the CITES wildlife treaty, NEPA issues permits only to applicants with a Jamaican specialist on the team. The agency also requires that specimens be deposited at the Institute of Jamaica, which houses the Jamaica Clearing House Mechanism, said zoologist and UWI life sciences lecturer Karl Aiken.

But with the number of species in some families of plants still unknown and new species being discovered every year, local scientists say the value of the island’s biological diversity is still vastly unknown. Many are seeking an economic assessment of in particular areas with high levels of endemism, but to date, only limited project-based assessments have been done.

Oberli is concerned that much of the island’s biological diversity is being lost to development before it can be recorded or discovered. He described the nature reserves declared by government as “paper parks”. One example is the protected Palisadoes peninsula, where a highway is being built in the single known habitat of a rare endemic cactus.

Jamaica’s medicinal research often derives from traditional remedies, such as Cannabis sativia, said to improve the eyesight of fishermen or used by grandmothers to ease asthma in children; Cerasse, a variety of Momordica charantia, long used to treat diabetes and cure bellyaches, among other ailments; breadfruit for hypertension.

Plant research in Jamaica dates back 129 years, but natural products research began in 1948 with the founding of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus. Since then scientists have tested the acumen of local bush doctors, studying hundreds of plants and testing 193, including 31 endemics for their for bioactivity or chemical compounds that remain stable during testing.

The UWI Group reported that close to a quarter of the endemics tested had bioactive compounds.

In 1987, pharmacology professor Manley West and his partner, the ophthalmologist Dr. Alfred Lockhart, successfully developed Canasol for the treatment of glaucoma, Asmasol for bronchial asthma and Canavert for seasickness. All three were derived from locally grown varieties of the Cannabis sativa, locally known as ganja.

In 2008, the pair was again successful with yet another cannabis-derived medication Centimal – the world’s first combination of an alpha agonist and beta-blocker for the treatment of glaucoma.

With the establishment of other local universities and now the Bio-Tech Research and Development Institute, a collaboration between the three oldest universities – UWI, the University of Technology, the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) – and the SRC, there have been even more successes.

At Central Jamaica’s NCU, scientists have investigated the cancer fighting properties of sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa), used to make Jamaica’s traditional Christmas beverage. Grown in three varieties here, sorrel yields a compound that researchers say could spark breakthroughs in the treatment or cure for lung and liver cancers.

The NCU also found that garlic causes lung and liver cancer cells to shrink and eventually die.

Researchers at the UWI are studying the effect of local herbs on lifestyle diseases including hypertension, diabetes and glaucoma. Jamaica’s rates of prostate cancer; hypertension and diabetes are among the highest in the world.

The problem Jamaican researchers now face, Lowe said at the Dec. 2 launch of the island’s newest research entity, “is staying ahead of the competition'”.

With the naming of the plant from which the extract is taken, Lowe and others worry that large companies will produce commercialized versions of the compounds before they do.

For example, periwinkle was traditionally used to treat diabetes for many years until local scientists isolated a compound to treat cancer. Their work was used to develop what are now the world’s leading leukemia drugs (Vinblastine and Vincristine), without acknowledgement of Jamaica’s intellectual property.

But despite the challenges of a cash-strapped government, high-cost patents and inadequate protection of the biological resources, researchers are forging ahead and hope that legislation will, in time, catch up.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Biodiversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (http://www.complusalliance.org).