Last month I visited the Páramo Ocetá in the department of Boyacá. The plan had been to hike up to 4,000 metres, taking in views of the Laguna Negra and the Ciudad de Piedra, but as we climbed from Monguí the weather set heavy and we found ourselves walking inside thick, rain-saturated clouds.
With visibility down to a few feet it was clear that the vistas were bound to disappoint, one wall of grey mist looking a lot like any other, so we decided to change tack and asked our guide if he would instead focus on what we could see up close, the unique vegetation of the páramo.
We couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. José Soto Sierra has been leading groups on the mountains for over twenty years, and his particular passion is native plants and their uses. I had expected only to learn the names of a few iconic plants; instead we were treated to a comprehensive exposition on the herbalism and plant lore of the indigenous Muisca people and the campesinos of the region. Every plant seemed to have a particular use; this one cures rheumatism, that settles the gut, another restores eyesight and yet more salve fatigue.
Caminadera, a type of moss, could be put in tired children’s shoes to revive them, hierba de oso (Castratella piloselloides) relieved back ache, and the frailejón (Espeletia grandiflora) soothed the chest and throat. José found a small shrub called sanalatodo and invited us to hold its bitter leaves under our tongues, explaining that traditionally it was used to ward off altitude headaches, as well as being a remedy for arthritis and infected wounds.
When I got back to Bogotá I looked up sanalatodo and found it to be Baccharis tricuneata. The genera Baccharis has been known as a folk medicine for many years, but recently researchers have begun testing its effects in the laboratory and found various species to have antiviral, antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and gastro-protective properties. Scientists are now working on isolating the active compounds found in the humble sanalatodo with the hope of developing new treatments for a range of conditions.
It is no coincidence that a plant used in traditional remedies should be the focus of medical research. A 2008 study in the United States showed that of the 150 most commonly prescribed drugs 118 were natural in origin, and that the majority of these (74%) came from flowering plants. There are as many as 400,000 species of flowering plant in the world, of which less than 1% have been comprehensively analysed for their potential medicinal applications. Where better then, to search for the next generation of therapeutic drugs, than with plants that have already been used and trusted for generations?
This ethnobotanical approach to the development of new medicines has undergone something of a resurgence since the 1980s. However, despite its plant diversity and the high number of extant indigenous communities, Colombia has traditionally lagged behind other Latin America countries in the field, with more research carried out in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and with what studies there have been here focussed mainly on the Amazonian regions. Thankfully this is beginning to change and the Colombian highlands are starting to draw deserved attention.
In 2011, Mauricio Gutiérrez Osorio of Bogotá’s Jardín Botánico José Celestino Mutis conducted an ethnobotanical study of El Páramo de Cruz Verde in the capital district. He found that the local population used 149 species of plant, 83 of which were growing wild. In total they utilised 63 medicinal plants, the majority of which had never been formally studied for potential therapeutic applications. A similar study on the high plains of Eastern Antioquia found local people using 254 species of plants, of which 127 were wild, while a survey of the folk medicine of the indigenous Kogi of Santa Marta found them using 77 medicinal plants, 43 of which grew on the páramo alone.
A lot has been written about the importance of conserving high altitude wetlands such as the páramos of Ocetá, Cruz Verde and Santa Marta, and rightly so. It is impossible to create a new drug if the plant producing it has been allowed to go extinct, but the importance of protecting and recording the knowledge of the people who live and work in these regions is often over-looked. If the folk wisdom ceases to be transmitted to the new generation, and is not studied in detail while we have the chance, then there will be no-one to lead tomorrows researchers to the next sanalatodo or hierba de oso.
As we walked down from the rain soaked mountain José Soto Sierra told me that he worries about our growing separation from the natural world. In an effort to preserve the local knowledge he has written thirty-two verse poem on the plants of the páramo and their properties [Cuidemos muscos nosotros los campesinos/Las árnicas los pepinos el chuzque y el frailejón.]
I am less concerned, as long as there are people like José, who strive to keep the traditions and culture alive, and ethnobotanists like those at the Botanic Garden who are prepared to learn from them, then we stand a good chance of mapping out all that the páramos have to offer Western medicine.
Pollen evidence show that Colombia’s mountainous wetlands have been acting as a drugs cabinet to people around Bogotá for nearly a millennia. Hopefully one day they will play the same role to the people of the world.