Below is more in depth info on incentives and the activities of the ICBG....


Suriname is often characterised as having an immigration society. Ever since the sixteenth century various ethnic groups arrived in Suriname under all sorts of different circumstances. The composition of the population is unique, both for Latin America and for the Caribbean. The different ethnic groups brought with them their own distinct cultural patterns, and so, also their knowledge of medicinal plants. These groups live together, respecting each other’s culture and religion. Peaceful co-existence and a slow integration of the ethnic groups have caused a mutual influencing of cultural patterns, so that certain customs, such as the use of therapeutical plants, have become more general. It is, therefore, important that I elaborate somewhat more on the history of our immigration society.

Suriname's indigenous inhabitants are Amerindians. Little is known about their history, but it is believed that there were some 70,000 Amerindians in Suriname by the end of the fifteenth century. Rocks in some rivers in the interior show the presence of Amerindians in pre-Columbian times. These grinding grooves have been caused by the sharpening of their stone axes. There are now at least nine tribes, of which two live in the coastal area, and three to seven in the interior. About 3% of the population consists of indigenous peoples.

People of African origin were brought as slaves to Suriname as early as the sixteenth century, in order to labour on the European-owned plantations. Their descendants, called Creoles (in Suriname this term is used to denote persons of mixed {European and African} descent) form the second largest ethnic group (more than 30% of the total population). Most Creoles live in the northern part of the country, particularly in and around the capital Paramaribo.

Since around 1660 plantation slaves fled and hid themselves in the dense jungle. These bushnegroes, or maroons, at present form six tribes, comprising10% of the population. Because they live in relative isolation in the rather inaccessible interior, their society is, one might state, a left over of old African culture, adapted to a Neotropical environment.

Ten years after slavery was abolished in 1863, indentured labourers were brought to Suriname from the British Indies primarily from the provinces around the Ganges basin. Now, some 137 years later, descendants of these people (in Suriname called Hindustani) constitute more than 37% of the Surinamese population. They live in various religious communities and have maintained quite a lot of their original culture and traditions.

In 1890 the first Javanese immigrants arrived in Suriname from Indonesia. They were recruited as indentured labourers for the sugar plantations. When many plantations closed down, the Javanese set up themselves elsewhere as small farmers. They preferable live close together, sometimes in villages, outside the capital. Cultural and traditional customs are still maintained, particularly in the rural communities. The Javanese form over 15% of the Surinamese population.

The remaining 4% of the population consists of Chinese, Lebanese and descendants of Dutch farmers.



The use of plants is as old as the history of mankind. Plants provide us with food and many other products.

A brief summary gives us insight into the importance of plants for man:

The green plants supply us with:

- cereals: like rice, corn and wheat;

- sugar: from sugarcane, and in other tropical areas from certain palm species;

- starchy tubers: like cassava, cush-cush (napi), tannia (tayer), potato;

- peas: we would also like to mention peanuts, soybeans and green peas;

- oils and fats are produced from, for example, oilpalm, awara (Astrocaryum vulgare), maripa (Maximilliana maripa), sesame, castor bean;

- refreshments like coffee, cocoa, tobacco, and (for the Amerindians in Peru), coca-leaves which are chewed;

- vegetables we use daily: cabbage, pumpkin, beans, and many other vegetables;

- condiments which flavour our food: black pepper, celery, ginger, nutmeg, and so on;

- fruits in a great variety: from babycherry to large watermelons;

- nuts: such as cashew, souari nut and Brazil nut;

- fibres and binding materials: cotton, seaside mahoe, coconut and from local species like singrasi (Bromelia alta), warimbo (Ischnosiphon spp.), kamina (Heteropsis spp.);

- construction materials like leaves of local palms;

- latex and resins: bullet wood and locust;

- aromatic oils from in indigenous trees as upru-udu (Copaifera guianensis) and crabwood (Carapa spp.);

- aromatic cosmetics: one can think of citronella-grass, tonka (Dipteryx odorata), rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), and kenanga (Cananga odorata), a typical Asian tree that produces ylang-ylang oil;

- tannins, from the bark of the red mangrove used in tanneries;

- dyes from annatto (Bixa orellana), indigo (Indigofera suffuticosa) and tapuripa (Genipa americana);

- detergents from mauritius hennep and a tree, locally called soap-wood (Pithecellobium jupunba);

- beads; from job's tears, kokriki (Ormosia spp.), kaw-ai= donkey-eye (Mucuna spp.) and other species;

- hunting necessities; bamboo and arrow-reed (Gynerium sagittatum) for

arrows and letter-wood (Piratinera spp.)for bows;

- baits for fishing: seeds and flowers of indigenous species;

- insecticides like neku (Lonchocarpus latifolius), neem , and blaka-uma (Cordia curassavica);

- a very important plant source for Suriname is timber such as wana (Ocotea rubra), pisi (Nectandra spp., Ocotea spp.), ceder (Cedrela odorata), crabwood (Carapa spp.), red locust (Hymenaea courbaril), wacapou (Vouacapoua americana), wild cedar/wild nutmeg (Virola spp.) just to mention a few.

This is enough for awhile, but we could go on and on.

In this paper and our presentation we will focus on medicinal plants used in Suriname.

The use of plants in curing diseases is as old as man himself. For thousands of years, people have had knowledge about the therapeutical effects of certain plants.

Nearly 5,000 years ago, the Chinese as well as the Shina people in the Middle East wrote about hundreds of species of medicinal herbs.

In the tropics there is extensive knowledge about medicinal plants, a knowledge that dates back to prehistoric times. For instance, in India the Ayurveda, and in Mexico the old pharmacopoeias. All over Africa, this knowledge had been handed down orally.

During our botanical research on medicinal plants, about which we will have to say more later in this paper, an Javanese informant told us the following story: "According to a legend, the use of medicinal plants originates from the East, from the Himalaya. Jesus and Moses who were normal people upon birth, travelled to the East when they were older. In the Himalayas, they learned a lot from the masters there. At a certain moment, Jesus and Moses came into conflict with each other, because they wanted to outdo their masters Then Jesus drugged the masters. After a while, somebody found a cure to neutralize the narcosis: namely the plant "godong sambilata" in Javanese (Melampodium camphoratum). This plant was the first plant that has been used medicinally". We would like to remark that this legend is, historically, not quite correct, because Moses lived about 1,500 years before Jesus. Furthermore, the Melampodium camphoratum plant is an annual herb, native to Brazil and the Guianas.

Up to a hundred years ago, minerals, animals and plants were the source of almost all medicines. With the rapid development in the natural sciences including medical science and pharmacology during the 19th and 20th centuries, a lot of synthetically produced medicines came on the market. Most of the synthetically produced medicines have been derived from natural materials. Plants not only produce starch, sugar, oil, proteins and vitamins, but there are a lot of other products, and chemical constituents that are inconspicuous at first sight. There is such a great variety of chemicals plants can make, that we may look at plants as chemical factories. To indicate that modern medicines often have a vegetable origin, or, at least, come from invaluable information from plants, we would like to tell you something about a very common and much-used medicine: aspirin

One of the old Greeks, Dioscorides, who lived 100 years AD, discovered that an extract of the white willow (Salix alba) had a sedative effect. For thousands of years, willow-extract had been used externally to kill pains. In the 19th century, a French chemist, isolated a constituent from the bark of the willow, which he called salicin (after the scientific name of the willow = Salix). Unfortunately, one could only use salicin externally. Internal use caused serious stomach and intestine complaints.

A few decades afterwards, chemists, could produce salicin synthetically. This new medicine was called salicylic acid, but it still could not be used internally. In 1899, German chemists produced a medicine that could be swallowed: acetyl salicylic acid or aspirin. Aspirin does not have a vegetable origin, but the white willow served as an example and gave the invaluable information necessary to produce aspirin. Some other plants provided the medicine directly: the foxglove (Digitalis) from Europe, produces compounds for people with heart problems. From India comes a drug against high blood pressure; the pharmaceutical industry makes this medicine from the roots of the Rauwolfia plant. In Peru in 1630, Jesuit missionaries discovered, that the bark of the chinchona tree could cure malaria. Later the active ingredient quinine was isolated and made into pills, so that malaria patients did not have to drink the awful tasting extract from the very bitter chinchona bark anymore. Not until the Second World War, was quinine made synthetically.

More than 270 years ago in Suriname, in 1730, a slave by the name of Kwasi discovered that a certain plant was very good against malaria. In recognition of his discovery, this plant has been given the scientific name of Quassia amara by the famous botanist of that time, Linnaeus. (the name means bitter Quassia). In 1730, Kwasi went to Europe, where he received from the Prince of Orange, Stadhouder Willem V, a medal, a laced coat with laced trousers, a sword of honor, and a decorated three-cornered hat. Kwasi knew many herbs and he could cure many illnesses.

To some people it may seem that all valuable medicinal plants have been discovered. Nothing is further from the truth. Less than 5% of all known plant species, approximately 250,000 in the entire world, has been studied regarding their possible uses for medicinal purposes. Less than 1% of the plants from tropical forests has been studied for medicinal properties. It is therefore of great importance to record the knowledge of the traditional healers. With the passing away of the older generations, much knowledge is going to be lost. A researcher who worked in South America - the well known ethnobotanist Dr. Richard Schultes - , once said: "Every time when a traditional healer dies, it is like a whole library has been burned down".

In Suriname too, many plants are being considered as a source of healing power. Because of the unique composition of our population, and because of the distinct cultural diversity, one can assume that there will also be a rich tradition concerning medicinal plants.



Traditional healing forms an integral part of the cultural patterns of the Indigenous (Amerindians), Maroons, Creoles, Javanese, Hindustani and other ethnic groups. Through Western influences, especially in the first half of this century, traditional medicine, which uses medicinal plants, was considered to be "backward and primitive". This is one of the reasons why part of traditional medicine and the use of medicinal plants has been lost. Until 20 years ago, the spiritual and cultural practices used during traditional healing ceremonies involving the use of herbal treatments was forbidden by law. In 1980, the Minister of Culture, Mr. R. Ravales (R.Dobru), initiated the process that led to the abolishment of the laws forbidding traditional healing and the use of medicinal plants. Since these practices are considered to be part of the multi-ethnic and cultural heritage of Suriname.

The different ethnic groups have their own healers: the Amerindians call the shaman (a priest who uses magic and herbs to cure the sick, to divine the hidden, and to control events) their piaiman. The shaman nearly always takes a hallucinogen to communicate with the spirits, and to find a cure. Plants that are used as hallucinogens are, for instance, Brunfelsia guianensis, of which the roots are steeped in liquid and Brosimum accutifolium of which tree the bark is used. In healing rituals of the indigenous, a twig of a particular plant is sometimes shaken over a patient to cure him. For the same reason, smoke of burned herbs, leaves or bark of trees is blown over the patient. These rituals are unknown to other ethnic groups.

The religion of the maroons is based on two main principles: the ancestor cult and the Grantata cult. Grantata is the deity carried over from Africa. The Maroons and the Creoles regard several diseases as punishment for something they had done wrong or as a result of evil caused by magic power of others. The "dresiman" in the African culture can be considered as a herb doctor. Particularly the women know several herbs which can be used to treat diseases. In the Afro-American religion (winti), a system of belief in deities, spirits and magic-religious practices, the "lukuman" (seer), the "wintiman" (a obeah-man) and the "bonuman" (medicine man) play an important role. The "wisiman" (a witch doctor) is able to harm others by supernatural means. All these healers or priests use plants or plant parts during the treatments they provide. Another typical Creole and Maroon treatment is the herbal bath in which different herbs are used depending on the disease which must be cured.

The most characteristic traditional medicine of the Javanese population is the "jamu", an ancient tradition from Indonesia. "Jamu" can be described as a mostly bitter potion of various herbs, leaves, rhizomes, flowers, fruits etc. The "jamu" is prepared by a dukun, who's principal task is to serve as a midwife, and besides that, is considered as the traditional healer in her community.

The first research on therapeutic plants used by the Hindustani in Suriname has been carried out in 1994. It is known that the Pandit (a Hindu priest) and the Maulana (a Moslim priest) act as traditional healers. The Hindustani are known to have treatments for hepatitis and other liver diseases.

Not only therapeutic plants are used in traditional medicine. Often aromatic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and anise-seed are added to extracts and infusions. Ointments are often made from various oils, such as coconut oil, olive oil or oils from indigenous palms. The plants used for herbal baths usually included one or more strongly aromatic herbs. Other additives, such as various salts, free-range eggs, copper cents and an indigo colouring agent are often used to complete certain potions.

Abstaining from certain acts also plays a part in traditional healing: for example, prohibition of sex during the treatment, not treating a menstruating woman, and not allowing drinking or eating of certain dishes or spices. Finally, the position of the moon is also taken into consideration, not only in preparing the medicine, but in treating the patient as well.

Here we will not go into the use of herbs and the application of herbal baths in magical rites, although these do play an important part within the cultures in Suriname.


4.1. Introduction

One of the International Co-operative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) initiatives is currently being implemented in Suriname. This initiative involves the cooperation of Conservation International (CI), tribal communities of the

Saramaka Maroons and Indigenous Tirio tribe of Suriname, the Government of Suriname through the national pharmaceutical company Bedrijf Geneesmiddelen Voorziening Suriname (BGVS), with the U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Bristol Myer Squibb, the agrochemical company Dow Agrosciences and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPISU). This biodiversity prospecting initiative collects, identifies and screens tropical plants for potential medicinal uses and new drug development on an international scale. The partners signed an agreement to cooperate under the ICBG-phase 1 (1993 - 1998) and ICBG- phase 2 (1998 - 2003). This agreement is confidential with respect to the intellectual property rights of all the partners involved. The project is funded by U.S. Agencies: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).


The objectives of the initiative are :

1. Development of opportunities for the development of new drugs;

2. Increase the knowledge base for bio-diversity conservation including valuable information from traditional cultures by documenting the ethno-botanical and other uses of plants;

3. Training and infrastructure improvement to conduct research on biological diversity;

4. Ensure that equitable economic benefits from drug discoveries accrue to Suriname;

5. Sustainable utilisation of non-timber forest products;

6. Perpetuating traditional plant knowledge and identification of potentially marketable non timber forest products.

The initiative is one of the first working models that embodies the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Suriname is a party since 11 April 1996.

Of significance is the role of indigenous people as guardians and managers of Suriname's bio-diversity in situ. Through contractual arrangements the participating Maroon communities and Indigenous people are compensated for the consultations provided and benefit sharing provisions are in place in case marketable new drugs are to be developed. In order to distribute up front and future financial benefits, BGVS and CI have created the Forest

People's Fund to support a range of micro-development activities for the communities in the interior of Suriname. The benefit sharing arrangement for ethnobotanically collected samples provides for a royalty disbursement of 50%, 25%, 15% and 10% for respectively FPF, GOS, BGVS and CI-Suriname. For randomly collected samples the ratio is 30%, 40%, 20% and 10%. The ratio for disbursement by the FPF is 1:2:2:5 respectively for the village authority, the community fund, the healer and the FPF through grants and revolving fund for micro enterprise development.

4.2. Methodology

The Surinamese parties involved in this project are:

a. BGVS - Associate Program Leader in Suriname prepares the extracts of the collected plant parts and co-ordinates the over all project activities in Suriname;

b. The Foundation Conservation International Suriname (CI-Suriname) is responsible for the ethnobotanical collections, documentation of the use and preparation there off, management of the Saamaka and Tirio database and the monitoring of the intermediate results for reporting to the healers and their leaders;

c. The Traditional Healers of the Saramaka Maroon and the Indigenous Tirío provide the information to be documented and provide guidance to the collection the appropriate plants and parts such in confidential co-operation with CI-Suriname;

d The Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG), collects and documents fertile specimens and plant parts ad random;

e. The National Herbarium of Suriname, at the Anton the Kom University of Suriname is the depository of all plants collected in triplicate by CI-Suriname and MBG.

The parties in the United States of America in this project are:

a. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPISU), Chemistry

Department is the overall Program Leader of the ICBG project in Suriname;

b. Bristol Meyers-Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute (BMS). Research is being carried out in the field of Anti-Cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases;

c. Dow Agrosciences (DA) is researching the extracts for pesticidal uses in agriculture;

d. The Walter Reid Army Institute for Research (WRAIR) is also involved in the project, mainly for research on plants that have been identified by the traditional healers as a profilax against malaria. At the national level the extracts are also screened using the specific test cultures of micro-organisms: Candida albicans, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Salmonella choleraesius, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Mycobacterium sp.


4.3. Preliminary results

The achievements of the project so far provide from October 1998 to September 1999 and subsequently from October 1999 to March 2000.

Under the random collection method about 20 species have been recorded by MBG as new for the Guianas and about twice as many as new for Suriname

Phase I involved only the Saramaka Maroon, the largest group of Africans living in a tribal setting in the western hemisphere. In Phase 2 the Tirio group, consisting of 9 sub-tribes has been added to the project.

A total of (minimum) 341 species of de 1163 specimens collected have been identified by the National Herbarium and about 60 specimen awaiting determination, which is rather difficult because these have been qualified as sterile specimen i.e. lacking fruits and or flowers. As a direct result of the ICBG project 158 plant species have been identified as new records for the national database of medicinal plants. This national database of medicinal plants is known as "Kwasi" and is housed and under the management of the National Herbarium of Suriname. This means that 46,3% of the identified species collected by CI-Suriname have never before been collected as medicinal plants, This is qualified as an exemplary addition to the national database known. The records of the actual ICBG ethnobotanical specimens can not accessed through the database, because of the IPR under the project and the confidentiality clause signed with the healers as part of the sub agreements that conclude the informed consent process.

One plant species from the family of the Asteraceae has been registered as having been collected for the fourth known time in the botanical history of Suriname. In a recent (November 1999) ethnobotanical expedition along the Gran Rio River, the major tributary of the Upper Suriname River, has resulted in the collection of 2 endemic species. Since the inception of the project 6 years ago there has been a noticeable increase in confidence and trust between the collectors and the healers, which has manifested itself in a marked increase of new plant species, prescriptions and subsequent hit rate. Some concern has been voiced by the healers conference in November 1999, about the increase in recollections being made, which on the one hand they consider as encouraging and on the other hand request for closer co-operation and confidentiality. At the request of the healers-conference, the Forest People Fund made the first compensatory disbursement totalling US $ 7,500.00 to the 13 healers that are actively participating in the project. The disbursement was made in accordance with the ratio "1: 2: 2" respectively for the village authority, the community and the healer, as agreed under the stipulations in the sub-agreements.

The research results can be summarised as follows: BGVS provided 4834 extract samples during the course of the project. The national screening efforts resulted in 54 hits and 44 samples selected for fractionation. BMS has performed 96000 assays from which 439 hits were registered, 106 samples selected for fractionation resulting in 27 compounds being isolated. VPISU has performed 37100 assays from which 32 compounds have been isolated. DA performed assays on 2050 samples with 215 hits of which 16 samples have been selected for fractionation. MBG collected about 1500 records.

4.4. The Shaman's Apprentice Program

The Shaman's Apprentice Program is a educational program of capacity building by and for traditional communities. The objective is to preserve indigenous knowledge and use of tropical plants on which the communities in the interior are both directly and indirectly dependent for there livelihood and continued existence. Studies have shown that, while new drugs can be found by random screening of plants, plants identified by indigenous people are up to 60 percent more likely to have pharmaceutical potential. For the indigenous people, plants also provide food, oils, latex and fibbers. By creating incentives for young members of the Suriname Tirío tribe to learn the traditional uses of plants from their elders the program helps to maintain critical indigenous knowledge within the tribe. The program helps protect the Tirío's forest by re-establishing the value of tropical plants and instilling community pride among tribal youths.


The National Herbarium of Suriname (BBS) started in 1991 with a database of plants which are used in traditional medicine in Suriname. The 'Kwasi" database has been named after Dr. Kwasi, and Quassia amara.

This database provides information about:

- Scientific names (family, genus, species and lower taxa);

- Vernacular names (Sranan-Tongo, Surinamese-Dutch, Sarnámi Hindi, Javanese, Carib, Arowak, Tirío, Wayana, Akurio, Saramaka, Auca, Paramaka, Chinese, Lebanese and Dutch);

- Habit of the plant species;

- Plant part used in traditional healing;

- Diseases treated;

- Herbarium vouchers, if collected;

- Distribution of the species;

- Other uses of the species (e.g. vegetables, ornamentals);

- Synonymy of the scientific name, as far as the species is mentioned in written information on traditional medicines;

- Characteristics of the species (e.g. latex, toxicity);

- Records of chemical research on the species;

Records of pharmacological research of the species;

- The memo field refers to the written information.

The "Kwasi" database contains information on 788 plant species, mostly Angiosperms.

The ICBG project resulted in 158 plant species that are new records for this database. When all the data of those 158 plant species will be available, the "Kwasi" database will have information on 946 plant species, out of the 5,100 known for Suriname. That means that ca. 18 % of the plants are being used for ethno-medicinal purposes. Since there is no written information on the tradition healing of other ethnic groups e.g. Carib, Arowak, Paramaka, Kwinti, Boni, we may assume that the percentage of plants used in traditional medicines will be higher.

This database shows that primarily the medicinal plants used by the Creoles have been described in popular books, usually written by persons who themselves use the herbs or who act as traditional healers. Fundamental ethnobotanical studies of medicinal plants has been taken up in the past 10 years. Plotkin (United States) has carried out research among the Tirío and Wayana indigenous tribes, and Sauvain (France) investigated plants that are used against malaria and leishmaniasis. In 1989, Tjong Ayong, at that time an Surinamese undergraduate biologist, made an inventory of the plants that are used medicinally by the Javanese. During this 4-month study she recorded 106 plants species, used by the traditional healers of Indonesian origin, in 269 prescriptions. Over 40 % of the prescriptions are traditionally from Indonesia. The other plants species and prescriptions are probably a mixture of traditional healing of other ethnic pharmacopoeia practiced in Suriname.

In 1994, Raghoenandan, at that time a Surinamese undergraduate biologist, (now a graduate botanist and curator of the National Herbarium), finished a 4-month research on the medicinal plants used by the Hindustani in Suriname.
She recorded from 17 informants that 106 plants species are used in 251 prescriptions. Her research showed that 34% of the plant species originated from India. She assumed that 17% of the species were already introduced before 1873 (when the first immigrants from India arrived). The Hindustani in Suriname also adapted themselves to the neotropical environment and are using 36 plant species that are native in Suriname South America. The number of original prescriptions brought from India was rather low (ca. 19%), while 27% has been adopted from other ethnic groups in Suriname. She concluded that the origin of 44% of the prescriptions could not be determined.

In 1997, research of 4 months has been carried out by Conservation International Suriname in cooperation with the National Herbarium amongst a maroon Aucaner community. During this research 100 plant specimens have been collected. Approximately 35 new therapeutic plants have been added to the previous known species in the database "Kwasi" with 788 medicinal species.

That will bring the database up to 823 species of medicinal plants. During the ICBG project at least 341 species of medicinal plants have been collected. As a direct result of this project 158 plant species have been identifies as new records for the national database "Kwasi" of medicinal plants, and will bring this database known records for Suriname from 823 to 981 plants species.

The "Kwasi" database contains 2,640 prescriptions. Symptoms or diseases with over 40 prescriptions are: fever (206); hypertension (43); stomachache (48); diarrhoea (59); headache (40); belly-ache (55); rheumatism (41) and intestinal worms (44). For typica l tropical "diseases" we have recorded 35 prescriptions against malaria, 15 prescriptions against botfly infection, 22 prescriptions against skin diseases, 15 prescriptions against insect bites, 17 prescriptions in case of a machete cut, 9 against leishmaniasis and 10 prescriptions against ringworm.