“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.

Photo: Asociación Etnobotanica Paraguaya

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.” 

Photo: Asociación Etnobotanica Paraguaya

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.