Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cambodia - Tigers and Tubers—Secrets of Bunong Healers

When French pharmacologist Francois Chassagne set out to catalogue traditional medicine used by Cambodia’s Bunong ethnic minority group in 2013, he came across a surprising remedy for burns: tiger breastmilk.

“Bunong people mentioned it many times, but most of them told me that they can’t find it anymore in the forest,” Mr. Chassagne, now a pharmacology Ph.D. candidate at Paul Sabatier University in France, said in an email on Tuesday.

The villagers told him that their ancestors had once collected the milk from the forest floor, “because the female tiger lose milk when they are feeding their babies.”

Tiger milk is arguably the most exotic of some 214 plant and 22 animal products that Mr. Chassagne and a team of French and Cambodian researchers identified as ingredients in traditional medicine used by Bunong people in Mondolkiri province in a paper set to be published later this month in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Mr. Chassagne said past studies had proven many of the treatments to be both safe and effective, and urged further research of 10 species not presently known to be medicinal in the West.

But as Cambodia’s flora and fauna are decimated by agro-industry and illegal logging, researchers fear the Bunong’s unique approach to health care may disappear with the forests.

Mr. Chassagne’s two-year survey of 202 Bunong people in 28 Mondolkiri villages—including herbalists, shamans, midwives and a bonesetter—uncovered a rich tapestry of treatments for 11 common ailments.

The treatments fit with the animist beliefs of the Bunong, an indigenous group of roughly 33,000 people spread across northeastern Cambodia who have traditionally practiced small-scale, rotational agriculture and relied heavily on the forest for material and spiritual sustenance.

The Bunong “perceive themselves as part of an environment shared with spirits and ancestors” that must be paid due respect to ensure good health and harvests, according to the upcoming paper. Traditional treatments draw on an understanding of the spirits, a balance of “hot” and “cold” elements, and excess or insufficient “chial,” or wind.

The Bunong hold that “spirits are everywhere, even in plants,” Mr. Chassagne wrote. “So, [the spirits] can act through plants to treat” illnesses.

The majority of treatments consist of various plants that are boiled and reduced into a decoction that is then drank, inhaled or used in a steam bath. The Bunong show remarkable resourcefulness: Siam weed might be decocted and mixed with other herbs in a bath to treat cramps, crushed with sugar and water to cure diarrhea, or decocted and mixed with urine to heal wounds.

“I tried it myself and it works!” Mr. Chassagne said of the latter treatment, conceding that he opted to forgo the urine.

Indeed, the paper cites previous studies showing that Siam weed has established analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Bunong medicine, Mr. Chassagne said, offers “very effective treatment for common ailments such as cut, burn, postpartum which are not available in western medicine.”

Postpartum mothers are particularly well-served by traditional cures, he said.

“Some plants help to give appetite or energy, or avoid insomnia. In western medicine, there is few therapies for treating these ailments,” Mr. Chassagne wrote.

Hydnophytum formicarum roots, used to treat stomach aches and other ailments, dry under the sun in Mondolkiri province. (Francois Chassagne)

Both East Asian porcupines and slow lorises—a type of nocturnal primate—are widely prized ingredients in medicine considered key to postpartum health. The animals are captured, grilled and macerated in alcohol with plants and parts of other animals before being imbibed by suffering mothers.

The World Wildlife Fund lists the pygmy slow loris as “threatened” in Cambodia due in part to its use in traditional medicine by the Bunong.

Other species face a similar fate amid deforestation caused by illegal loggers and industrial-scale plantations. As the country’s forests dwindle, the Bunong lose access to cheap, accessible medicine, driving them to local clinics that Mr. Chassagne described as short-staffed and underfunded.

And laws designed to protect the forests—and those who depend on them—are routinely flouted, said Bill Herod, a longtime resident of Mondolkiri and adviser to The Bunong Place, an NGO based in the province.

“Both the Constitution and various laws guarantee the rights of indigenous people to their traditional land, but such guarantees are ignored or circumvented,” Mr. Herod said in an email.

“There are many examples of indigenous people being tricked or cheated out of their land,” he added, in part because “many indigenous people have little or no experience with the concept of private ownership.”

Loek Sreyneang, a 26-year-old project official at the Cambodia Indigenous People Organization, predicted that her Bunong community in Mondolkiri would be forced to turn to Western medicine as forests disappeared.

“We live in the provinces, so we know the exact herbs in the forest,” she said on Tuesday. “But the natural resources are not there anymore.”

“When I was young, I could walk along the way from school to my house to farm…and see wild animals run along the way. I felt very comfortable in the forest,” she said.

“It’s so much change for us now.”

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