The Peruvian bark: Recovering a Peruvian symbol of flora wealth
|Three elements are highlighted in the
national shield of Peru: the cornucopia, representing the mineral wealth
of the country; the vicuña, camelide of the Andes, representing the
most valuable wool of the world, and the tree of the Peruvian bark,
representing Peru's plentiful flora wealth. There is much to be said
about such an important natural resource; the Peruvian bark, in addition
to being a symbol of national patrimony, has a very important role in a
long fight against Malaria or Paludismo, the disease that for a long
time extinguished thousands of lives.
Peru is one of the five countries that possess the most abundant bio-diversity in the world. Nevertheless, many of its numerous species of fauna and flora are threatened with extinction. The Arbol de la Quina, Peruvian bark, regrettably is one of these endangered plants. Though the name of this herbaceous plant is either unfamiliar to the general reader, or merely known as a national symbol of Peru, it is a rare wild species of valuable healing properties on the verge of disappearing.
The tree, native to the Andean highlands of Peru is the source of Quinine. The substance is extracted form the bark of the tree. In the first step in production of quinine, the bark of the uprooted tree is beaten loose, peeled by hand, and dried quickly to prevent the loss of alkaloids. Final extraction is conducted in factories, chiefly in the United States or Europe.
The history of Arbol de la Quina is intriguing. According to historians Malaria is the most possible cause of death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.It is known that when the Spaniards arrived in Peru, and brought Malaria to the new world; many of them settled in warm weather territories contracted Paludismo (Malaria), a progressive and debilitating parasitic disease that is characterized by periodic high fevers. Often more deadly than bullets, this disease decimated armies and stunted civilizations since time immemorial, and it continues to affect populations in many areas of the world.
Legend tells that the plants were named after the Countess wife of Count Chinchón, Viceroy of Peru. The countess was cured of a mysterious life-threatening fever in 1632 by a preparation of the bark. At her instigation, the bark was collected for malaria sufferers and later exported to Spain. She herself introduced use of the quinine in Europe. Native peoples, however, had long used it for medicinal purposes. It is sometimes called Jesuits' bark because of the part the Jesuits played in its dispersal. In her honor the plant was named Chinchona.
Until the twentieth century it was a complete mystery how the bark actually worked as well as how quinine worked. Quinine changed the history of the world; without it the Panama Canal probably could not have been built. During its construction, extensive knowledge of malaria was gained and quinine was established as the only cure to malaria. This fact, later enabled soldiers to survive the South Pacific and Mediterranean locations during war. Experts took numerous plants out of Peru during this period. Demand for the bark soared leading to practically depletion of Peruvian resources.
The British successfully transplanted the plant and spread the used quinine medically throughout their colonies in Asia. Several species yield quinine and several other antimalarial alkaloids. Its commercial importance was initially greatly reduced after the development of synthetic analogs. However, over time the malarial parasite developed a resistance to the synthetic version of quinine and the demand for natural quinine increased dramatically.
During World War II, the small resources of the Peruvian bark were harvested from plantations to combat the new resistant strain of the disease. The raw material was taken to specialized laboratories and a new Quinine tablet was processed that proved to be an effective remedy against the disease. After the war and the industrialization of the production of quinine, the plantations almost disappeared in Peru.
The Peruvian bark survived war. Today however, rapid development and expansion of civilization has again put it in danger of disappearing in its original natural habitat. There is an effort to promote the recovery of the Peruvian bark. According to WHO (World Health Organization) 40% of the world population - mainly of poor countries- are at risk of contracting the disease. More than 300 million people get sick every year and approximately I million, mainly children, die every year; 90% of the victims in Africa, also the cause of death in poorly developed tropical and sub-tropical regions (mostly from anemia, low birth weight, and hypoglycemia).
Engineer Enrique Torres Ocampo, president of Institute of Research
and Agrarian Development, Health and Education (IIDASE) and his team of
biotechnology experts are working with indigenous specimens to restore
the plant within the northern Peru district of San Ignacio, in the
Department of Cajamarca. So far, they have been able to recover 12 of
the 18 existing species, making use of specialized techniques such as In
Vitro Cultivation . The first step has been taken, but the recovery
effort will be long and arduous. The effort is well worth it though,
since it not only means the rescue of a species that is part of the
Peruvian national patrimony and is an invaluable resource for the
benefit of humanity.
ETYMOLOGY: New Latin Cinchona, genus name, reputedly after Francisca Henríquez de Ribera (1576-1639), Countess of Chinchón.
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English, Lola Salas