Cutting Cures: Medicinal Plants Under Threat In Paraguay

Projects to preserve medicinal plants are flourishing throughout the country
Projects to preserve medicinal plants are flourishing throughout the country
Pierre Bratschi

“Here you have a stevia, that’s for diabetes," says Téodora, a sun-weathered snippet of a woman of around 50, proudly beginning a tour of her medicinal plant nursery.

She points out the Paraguayan lemongrass, for nerves; and a plant with little purple flowers, called “forever alive”, which is excellent for the heart.” All told, her three-hectare plantation contains some 60 species of plants used in Paraguay for medicinal purposes.

“The use of medicinal plants is very strongly anchored in Paraguayan culture,” explains Albino Portillo, representative of the Swiss Red Cross in Asunción.

Plants are usually mixed with herbs that are used for tereré, a sort of cold infusion which is drunk by almost all Paraguayans at any time of day. “Unfortunately, the traditions and the know-how are being lost little by little with the country’s deforestation,” says Portillo.

The environmental effects on such agricultural sources of medical cures has driven both the Swiss Red Cross and the Botanical Garden of Geneva to support the Paraguayan association Tesai Reka (“Seeking Health”) in its project aimed at increasing the use of these plants. Several medicinal nurseries have been established across the country in order to train farmers in their jobs and ensure sustainable production.

The young plants are given to farmers trained by the association, who are supposed to both plant them and spread the know-how to others in their village. Antonia, recently turned plant producer, shows off the alembic with which she distils her plants: “I made it myself with chimney pipes of various diameters. It works really well.”

In front of her house surrounded by lush vegetation, she displays the phials which she sells to her neighbours. “This one’s for nerves and this for stomach pain,” she explains, detailing the appropriate dose, “three drops in the morning and evening.”

If medicinal plants are part of the everyday lives of Paraguayans, it’s also thanks to Moises Bertoni, a Swiss botanist who came to settle in the country at the end of the 19th century. Born in the small village of Lottigna, Ticino, Bertoni studied botany at the University of Geneva before moving to Paraguay where he founded the Guillaume Tell colony, near the Iguazu Falls. He published 542 scientific articles and amassed a herbarium of more than 6000 plants; a collection kept at the Paraguayan Botanical Society, after having been completely restored by the Botanical Garden of Geneva.

Gold mine in a garden

Indeed, the Botanical Garden has long financed and managed the broader Etnobotanica Paraguaya project, the aim of which is to preserve medicinal plants and to train farmers to cultivate them.

“We have approximately 600 species of medicinal plants here in the Botanical Garden of Asunción,” explains Ana Pin, project coordinator. “We hope to thus assure the conservation of these plants, which every day are under increasing threat from the destruction of their natural habitat and by constant harvesting.”

More than 8000 species of plants have been recorded in Paraguay, among which approximately 15% are used for medicinal purposes; a gold mine of vegetation which is nevertheless seriously threatened by deforestation.

Over the past ten years, Paraguay has become the fourth largest exporter of soya worldwide, and a major producer of livestock, an exceptional display of growth but at the cost of the devastation of a large part of the plants’ habitat. Soya has become the principal driving force of the country’s growth and nothing seems to be able to stop the expansion of its sale. The former Environment Minister José Luis Casaccia has declared that “Paraguay is the champion of deforestation,” adding that “only 13% of the original forest of the Eastern part of the country still remains, and if this continues, in 30 years there will not be a single tree left.”

‘Promoters’ like Antonia are therefore trained to encourage on the one hand good health through the use of plants, and on the other hand the preservation of the exceptionally rich biodiversity of Paraguay; the wealth of which is also coveted by large pharmaceutical groups. Researchers have shown that some Paraguayan and Bolivian plants could be effective against malaria or Chagas disease, and that the bark of the Lapacho tree contains molecules capable of destroying certain cancerous cells.

However, the large-scale production of medicinal plants in order to make natural and cheap drugs is not so simple. “All it takes is the plant not being grown in the same location, or being subjected to different climatic conditions, or even being collected at different times, for its effects to differ,” explains Esteban Ferro, Professor of Chemistry at the National University of San Lorenzo and winner of the 2012 Paraguayan Prize for Science for his exceptional catalogue of medicinal plants. “It is therefore very difficult to create a reliable drug from these leaves,” adds the chemist, “The solution would be to extract the active principle from them and draw the drug from that, but this requires a large amount of investment and technology that the country does not have.”

Yet Paraguayans are convinced: the consumption of plants has a positive influence on public health. Indeed, despite their country being amongst the poorest in the region, in 2012 they had a life expectancy of 76 years, one of the highest.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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