Jungle Medicine

Natives want a share of the profits when drug firms exploit their remedies

Keith Dannenmiller / Alamy

A Piaroa Indian woman helps biologist Ramiro Royero with information about medicinal plants near Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela.

Women the world over may find a miracle brewing in a place called Uruka Amahuaja, a cluster of huts in the Venezuelan rain forest, reachable only by dugout canoe. Biologist Ramiro Royero has set up a computerized field office there to collect data on a plant still unknown to the outside world: a shrub whose poinsettia-like leaves are steeped as a medicinal tea by the Piaroa tribe to relieve menstrual cramps--without the caffeine jitters and other side effects caused by most of today's commercial remedies.

Maria Lopez, 59, a tribal matriarch, assesses Royero's work with the eye of a seasoned businesswoman--and...

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