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Marketing medicinal plants - Mercosur's healthy ambition

Hiking through Argentina's rugged Andes Mountains reveals a vast outdoor pharmacy. "The Mapuche people would use a remarkable variety of wild plants for medicinal purposes," says a mountain guide, referring to the bright plants, trees and shrubs used by the early settlers. "An extract from the quilquil stem can be used to treat eye problems, while the leaves of the notro contain natural agents that alleviate swollen glands." He continues: "Nalca roots have gum high in tannin that acts as a stimulant, and the leaves of a radal tree are a natural treatment for asthma."

Latin America is home to more than half the world's plants and has a longstanding tradition of using many of them for medicinal purposes. The Mapuche people of Argentina, along with rural communities in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have been using natural medicines for hundreds of years. Beyond personal use, however, there has never been a co-ordinated effort to tap into a US$60 billion (estimated by WHO) natural medicine global market.

Regional networking for medicinals

It is with this market in mind that the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) launched its 'Regional Programme in Support of a Medicinal Plants Development Network in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay,' in 2005. The programme will spend US$1.3 million over a three year implementation period, due to finish in 2008. It is hoped that the programme, which is overseen by member state national governments, will provide a template for the medicinal plants industry to grow and benefit small farmers into the future.

Experts agree that, until now, the medicinal plant industry in the four Mercosur (Southern Cone Common Market) countries has been inefficient in an increasingly dynamic world market. "Only a small percentage of medicinal plants in Argentina are actually cultivated for a medicinal purpose," says Eduardo Polcan, a plants expert representing the Argentine agriculture ministry in the project. "Instead, the majority of the plants are harvested from the wild by peasants, causing maximum ecological damage and providing minimum economic gain."

Healthy investment

The main aim of the three year project is to assist small-scale farmers to diversify and increase their income. This will be achieved through supporting plant research, offering training to farmers in the cultivation and processing of medicinal plants, creating access to markets, and enabling the transfer of technology between farmers. It is a challenging task. An Argentine project worker lists some of the available plants: camomile to soothe the nerves, horsetail used in beauty nutrients, pau d'arco to strengthen the body's defence system, peperina used in herbal tea infusions, and passiflora with its antibacterial properties. But these, he added, are just a handful of the more than 500 different species currently used in the region's traditional medicine market.

The initial year-long crop feasibility phase of the scheme is now drawing to an end. Over the next two years, four projects per country will implement plant selection, cultivation and processing, whilst making use of the production chain networks established over the past twelve months. To secure access to the world market, political will also exists to formulate a legal framework to ensure recognised international standards are met.

Project coordinator and plants expert from Brazil, Fatima Brandalise has high hopes for the scheme. "With appropriate cultivation to meet market demand, the project will guarantee income generation," says Brandalise. "The traditional medicines market is increasing worldwide and a recognised system in Mercosur will stimulate further investment to support our farmers," she added. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have the climate, quality of land and available labour force to produce a very competitive product on the world market. With the right infrastructure in place, these countries could realise their potential.

Date published: January 2007


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