Plant Hunter Finds Cures, And Riches
Cesar Rosales with a herbal product in Lima, Peru, meant to purify the liver. Such remedies in Peru often date back thousands of years. Below, a traditional method is used to shake dirt from a batch of a popular root vegetable, maca.
By ANDREW DOWNIE
Published: January 1, 2008
NINACACA, Peru – High in the Peruvian Andes, a shaman rubs a fluffy white rabbit all over Chris Kilham’s body, murmuring in Quechua, the language of these barren plains. Then she slits the animal’s throat and lets the blood run into a tiny grave.
A Medicine Hunter in Peru
To Mr. Kilham, the offering – an appeal to the gods for a bountiful harvest of maca, a local tuber – is just another day at the office.
Mr. Kilham, an ethnobotanist from Massachusetts who calls himself the Medicine Hunter, has scoured remote jungles and highlands for three decades for plants, oils and extracts that can heal. He has eaten bees and scorpions in China, fired blowguns with Amazonian natives, and learned traditional war dances from Pacific Islanders.
But behind the colorful tales lies the prospect of money, lots of money – for Western pharmaceutical companies, impoverished indigenous tribes and Mr. Kilham. All told, natural plant substances generate more than $75 billion in sales each year for the pharmaceutical industry, according to a study by the European Commission.
Although the efficacy of some of the products the herbal ingredients go into is hotly debated, their popularity is not in doubt.
Thirty-six percent of adults in the United States use some form of what experts call complementary and alternative medicine, according to a 2004 study published by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Mr. Kilham believes multinational drug companies underutilize the medicinal properties in plants. They pack pills with artificial compounds and sell them at inflated prices, he says. He wants Westerners to use the pure plant medicines that indigenous peoples have used for thousands of years.
“People in the U.S. are more cranked up on pharmaceutical drugs than any other culture in the world today,” Mr. Kilham said. “I want people using safer medicine. And that means plant medicine.”
Easy going and earnest, Mr. Kilham, 55, can identify unusual plants by their Latin names and he proudly regales the uninitiated on their individual properties.
Shortly after leaving Lima on a trip taking French businessmen to the Peruvian Andes, he stopped the van and enthusiastically explained how the tropane alkaloids in a dusty plant he spotted by the side of the road are used by ophthalmologists to dilate pupils for eye examinations.
Such properties are often well known by indigenous peoples. So-called bioprospectors can make their fortunes by bringing those advantages to the attention of companies who identify the plant’s active compound and use it as a base ingredient for new products that they patent.
Some 62 percent of all cancer drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration come from such discoveries, according to a study by the United Nations University, a scholarly institution affiliated with the United Nations.
In Peru, Mr. Kilham is betting on maca, a small root vegetable that grows here in the central highlands – “a turnip that packs a punch,” he says, adding “it imparts energy, sex drive and stamina like nothing else.”
That view is supported by studies carried out at the International Potato Center, a Lima-based research center that is internationally financed and staffed. Studies there show maca improves stamina, reduces the risk of prostate cancer and increases the motility, volume and quality of sperm. Some peer reviewed studies published in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology backed up those findings.
Photographs by Jennifer Szymaszek for The New York Times
Sofia Herrera, left, a shaman, performing a harvest ritual with Chris Kilham, center, his wife, Zoe Helene, and others.
For centuries, maca has been a revered crop in this austerely beautiful region northeast of Lima. Inca warriors ate it before going into battle. Later, Peruvians used it to pay taxes to Spanish conquistadors.
Today, locals consume it boiled alongside dried vicuña meat in soups; or diced with carrots, peas and cauliflowers in salads. Maca flour is used to make sponge cake. Flavored with chocolate, it is made into maca puffs. Villagers offer visitors maca drinks and maca juice; airports sell maca toffees.
Mr. Kilham first heard about the tuber in 1996. Two years later, he went to Peru to find out more. There he formed a partnership with Sergio Cam, a Peruvian entrepreneur who invested much of the money he made as a construction worker in California from 1984 to 1999 to start Chakarunas Trading.
Today, Chakarunas organizes local growers to sell their maca to the French firm Naturex, which extracts it into concentrate to Enzymatic Therapy, a Wisconsin-based company that makes and markets the finished maca products.
Thanks to the health supplements boom, both companies have grown, with Naturex’s revenues topping $125 million in 2007 and Enzymatic Therapy’s surpassing $80 million. Enzymatic Therapy sells $200,000 worth of maca-based products each month, said the company’s chief executive Randy Rose.
Mr. Kilham says he earns around $200,000 each year in retainers, and sales are so buoyant he expects to make “in the mid-six figures” in royalties next year.
Mr. Kilham insists he is not in the business simply for financial gain. His motivation comes from promoting herbal medicines and helping traditional communities, he said.
“I have financial security and don’t need to make money from this,” he said. “I believe trade is the best way to get good medicines to the public, to help the environment and to help indigenous people.”