Mónica Litovsky Díaz, a deeply thoughtful sociologist, uses Uruguay’s medicinal herb harvesting agro-ecological production and processing to bring popular and traditional knowledge into a modern framework, secure the participation of a marginalized population as suppliers in a developing market, and protect the environment.
The New Idea
Monica is systematizing medicinal herb harvesting and integrating ancient healing practices into formal health and pharmaceutical markets. She has identified community pharmacies as a key link where regulated modern markets and ancient informal ones must meet, and has laid the groundwork for creative synthesis. Working with all interested parties, including the health establishment, traditional healers, herb harvesters, scientists, the academy, policy makers, private landowners, and business, Monica is creating a system that couples enhanced civic participation of a previously invisible population with policy that protects biodiversity while it expands the availability of high quality medicinal herbs. Further, it helps an enlarging formal market strengthen the position of small producers rather than exclude them. In Uruguay, with large local consumption of medicinal plants, a rich resource base, popular sectors whose knowledge is retrievable and useful, and where certification of medicinal herbs has come onto the public agenda, she has the advantage of starting with something of a blank slate and using what’s been done and left undone in other Latin American countries.
In the process of certification and regulation of herbs, Monica, with the broad array of institutions and participants she has woven together, tackles the issues from every angle. She is building a shared process for scientific cooperation, ensuring quality standards of herb harvesting and medicine production at the community level, preventing business practices that would harm plants or people, and changing policy to facilitate regulation and shape environmental protection.
Monica aims for Uruguay to set the standard for participative certification of medicinal herbs in the region and across the world. She sees applications of her model to be particularly relevant for countries like Brazil, which also struggles to reconcile environmental protection, traditional knowledge, and commercialization. Her work will inform the Southern Common Market’s (Mercosur’s) developing policy for trade in medicinal herbs. At the community level, trained herb collectors are replicating Monica’s work, teaching others, and spreading information.
An estimated 198 tons of plants harvested from the wild are sold annually in Uruguay, most in the form of additions to maté, a widely-consumed and traditional preparation. These are medicinal herbs, yet are usually not recognized as such. Over 150 medicinal herb species are deeply embedded in popular use, but knowledge about medicinal plant harvesting and use is hidden among rural people who have not been asked about and are not inclined to share this information. Part of this reluctance has to do with the complete denial of popular and traditional knowledge in Uruguay subsequent to persecution and genocide of people of indigenous heritage. Traditional healers, herb harvesters, and others risk losing their livelihoods if they share too much of what they know. Yet if dispersed and managed properly, their knowledge could create significant revenue. To secure that potential, this knowledge must conform to botanical classification so that businesses can reliably know what they are selling and the healthcare establishment can incorporate and support it.
Informal pharmacies in low-income areas, usually family-run enterprises, are some of the few places that possess traditional medicinal knowledge. They sell, barter, and give away medicines made from long established but informal methods of herb preparation. They are an integral part of community health practices that are increasingly recognized by the formal health establishment in Uruguay and throughout Latin America essential for preventative health care and the active treatment of disease. These pharmacies are technically illegal, and while that is not relevant in local contexts, it presents an obstacle to participating in a regulated market. If small producers want to survive, supply processes need to be improved so that informal pharmacies comply with the government regulations designed for big businesses.
Beyond the economic benefits, medicinal herbs and their uses are a valuable part of Uruguay’s patrimony, part of a hidden history citizens are increasingly trying to discover. And yet these herbs are increasingly threatened. Wild plants harvested by private enterprises without adequate resource management, for example, are becoming highly pressured. There is a risk of damaging or limiting the resource base itself and its economic and social potential. Uruguay is beginning to create policies and designate regions for environmental protection, to reconcile economic growth with natural resource use and preservation. There is an opportunity to use medicinal plant harvesting as a reason for preserving land. At the same time, the international market for organic medicinal plants is opening up, and international standards are being defined for sustainable harvesting and organic certification.
Monica is one of four directors at the Uruguayan Center for Appropriate Technologies (CEUTA), coordinating the medicinal plant program, since 1997. CEUTA has twelve staff members. The basic building block of Monica’s strategy is her capacity-building work with communities. She links producers to the formal market, with many interwoven relationships with scientists, business, policy makers, landowners, government agencies, schools, and others. Then her strategies tie inclusion of the people of the resource to practices of fair trade and environmental protection. Her community-level work is either financially self-sustainable (as in herb cultivation programs) or supported by grants from international organizations. Her policy work is done on her own time.
Monica’s first program works with small farmers and family plots to develop additional skills that will make them competent to sustain a place in the medicinal plant economy. In this program, she develops capacity to cultivate the plants in places where wild harvesting is impossible because wild plants have disappeared, to harvest sustainably, to practice organic processes that qualify their produce for certification, and to classify the plants botanically. She is also tackling the critical challenge of integrating the community pharmacies into the regulated market. Each strategy ties back to building a place in the market for local suppliers and protecting the environment.
For cultivation, Monica calls into practice traditional knowledge of herb cultivation, drying, and use, and also introduces scientists and researchers into the process. Agronomy engineers, for example, can help adapt organic food production norms to organic herb production. Community women then teach other women in the harvesting program about the organic production processes they have learned. Organic products and sustainable certification enable growers and harvesters to sell their herbs profitably to a growing international market.
Monica also builds capacity among herb collectors for sustainable harvesting of wild plants according to international certification standards laid out by the World Health Organization. Many experts in the field of medicinal plants consider policy that supports sustainable wild harvesting to have greater conservation potential than cultivation. Without such policy, wild plants would be collected until they disappeared because of perceived value. Popular belief that cultivated plants lose spirit power they have in the wild resonates with current research suggesting that wild harvested plants may be more effective medicinally.
An integral element of Monica’s work with local producers—and where Monica has built close ties with business and academia—involves categorization of the medicinal plants. In this area, Uruguay is behind Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil, who earlier moved beyond European colonizers’ pharmacopeias to develop their own much more extensive lists. Botanical analysis of herb species is necessary to legally sell products made from identified medicinal herbs. Existing pharmacopeias in use in Uruguay list only European and North American plant species, so classification of species unique to the region must be done to include them in policy and trade. Monica has designed a process that matches pictures and simple descriptions to scientific names, allowing local growers to work with scientists and easily identify and label the herbs they prepare for sale.
In the past, Monica implemented her sustainable harvesting program on private lands. Now that Uruguay is beginning to develop a system of protected lands, Monica is using wild plant harvesting (which she is proving profitable) as a justification for environmental preservation. She has been asked to develop management plans for public lands where wild plant harvesting is done. Because Monica is expanding markets for medicinal herbs both regionally and nationally, she has also attracted the attention of the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fisheries. She hopes to include medicinal plant collection as an officially recognized category of production as one means of bringing collectors into the mainstream economy. This would also put medicinal herbs within the biodiversity managed and protected by the Ministry of Agriculture—a strategic position from which to argue for applying the principles of sustainable harvesting to other resources. Monica focuses her work on policy with an eye always on regional adoption by the Mercosur members.
To incorporate informal neighborhood pharmacies into the formal, legal market, Monica needs to protect the people behind the informal pharmacies while at the same time attempting to adapt both policy and elements of their ancient practice. This must be done quickly: Some of the medicinal products have recently been picked up by a chain of eco-shops, making it critical that they are legalized before the government cracks down. Monica’s design would allow the pharmacies to legally register medicinal products, and would encourage the businesses she works with to publicize that they are getting their products from certified sustainable harvesting processes. The growing trend among health professionals to incorporate traditional practices reinforces the emphases on environmental health and civic inclusion of traditional practitioners. Recognition from the government for medicinal herb products harvested sustainably strengthens measures to prevent the industry from using harmful harvesting practices. It also underscores to all the informal workers involved that such reforms are good for them as well as for the plants, bringing much of her strategy full circle.
Over time, communities carry on the work Monica has begun with them with very little intervention from her organization. Harvesters and cultivators learn to replicate her work by teaching others the medicinal herb processes, organizing community events, mobilizing local press, and applying for funding for their own projects. They also teach children in seminars in community schools on topics relating to local culture and history. These are all ways for their knowledge to be systematically expressed on their own terms, bringing them into the mainstream while protecting their ancestral heritage.
Raised in a middle-class rural family, Monica grew up surrounded by nature and came to develop keen senses of observation and listening. She paid close attention to the rural communities near her home, listening to their stories and learning.
As a student during Uruguay’s dictatorship, Monica actively participated in the student movement, questioning many aspects of her society. Because of her love of the environment, Monica first studied biology, later switching to chemistry, and finally, sociology. During her post-graduate studies, Monica became involved with university service programs, looking to contribute to social changes after the dictatorship. She realized how removed her university studies were from working for the public good, and abandoned her studies temporarily until she could figure out how to bridge that gap.
Monica began working as a consultant to Calamaña, a cooperative of organic medicinal and aromatic plants. She worked with a group of rural women for two years on medicinal plant cultivation before she realized that some of them were traditional healers. It was an important realization, teaching her that there are different kinds of knowledge operating on parallel tracks in relation to the environment and natural resources, and that bringing them together requires trust and new connections between realities that are accustomed to operating separately.
In 1997 Monica brought many different threads together—her interest in rural communities, her love of the environment, and her desire to work for public good—to form a medicinal plant program within the Uruguayan Center for Appropriate Technology. Today Monica is a national reference on the topic for the Public Health Ministry, municipalities, organic agriculture networks, and programs for environmental protected areas. She is co-founder of the Network for Medicinal Plants of South America, with partners in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.