Home Institution

Washington University in St. Louis

Publication Date

Summer 2011

Program Name

Madagascar: Traditional Medicine and Health Care Systems


For centuries, traditional medical practitioners around the world have understood the tremendous wealth of medicinal power that can be found in the natural environment. In Madagascar, traditional practitioners have both used and cared for their natural environment, which in turn has given them a wide array of medical knowledge. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “approximately 80% of the world’s inhabitants rely predominantly on traditional medicines for their primary health care” (Cao et al. 2009). Traditional medical knowledge has relatively recently come to the attention of the international medical market. This “recent ‘rediscovery’ of medicinally useful plants” (Sheldon et al. 1997) has lead to increases in bioprospecting around the world. Bioprospecting is the term used now to refer to “the search for wild species and their products, with actual and potential usefulness to humans, where the products were commercial or non-commerical” (“Bioprospecting and Strategies” 2000).

As both the home of extraordinary biodiversity and traditional knowledge, Madagascar is an ideal location for bioprospecting ventures. In Madagascar, there are 200 families of flowering plants, and about 9000 out of 12000 of the flowers found on the island are endemic (Lecture: Dr. Bernardin 6/14/11). But, the excessive and often abusive exportation of medicinal plants by questing pharmaceutical companies may be considered partially responsible for the decline of Madagascar’s biological diversity. Any bioprospecting ventures on the island must take the appropriate measures to foster and conserve the natural medicinal resources of the island, both for the Malagasy people and the global population.

However, the wealth of Madagascar’s medicinal resources is not just in the flora and the fauna, but also in the people who live and work on the land. Approximately 1 million tons of medical plants are exported per year, (Lecture Dr. Solo 6/20/11), at a value of about $3.59 million dollars (Lecture Dr. Tolotra 6/20/11), but the Malagasy people themselves see very little of the profit directly, in monetary value, or through community initiatives. Although pharmaceutical companies and bioprospecting ventures seek to benefit much of the world’s population by creating new and life-saving medications, the end result is too often achieved at a high social, economic, and ecological cost. If pharmaceutical companies and bioprospecting ventures irresponsibly exploit the natural resources of countries, like Madagascar, to produce medicines desired by Western markets, they run the risk of depriving the people not only of their natural resources, but also of their sources of health care. The relationship between those who wish to export resources and the communities they exploit must be more than one of simple economic exchange. The relationship must be a partnership, and in the long-run, both parties will benefit. As an international conference on bioprospecting in 1997 emphasized:

“Any discussion about the industrial exploitation of forests for medicinal purposes must address three central issues: firstly how to enhance the public’s general awareness that environmental conservation is essential, feasible and does not compromise economic benefits; secondly that an (administrative) structure be introduced which ensures that indigenous communities are equitably compensated, based on the kind of quantity of material being extracted, as well as its market value, thirdly, that indigenous knowledge and wisdom be recognized, acknowledged, recorded and compensated and that a system be introduced which facilitates those vital steps” (“Bioprospecting and Strategies” 2000).

This study will be an analysis of how pharmaceutical companies and bioprospecting ventures have positively benefited the communities whose resources they use today, and what community members would like to see improved upon in the future.


Community Health and Preventive Medicine | Natural Products Chemistry and Pharmacognosy