The co-founders of Vitanova, a vitamin brand that uses a variety of medicinal herbs in its supplements, traveled to the rainforest this summer to meet with the Shuar’s tribal elders as part of their “Paying Forward” project. For the past two years, Vitanova has donated 10% of all profits to the preservation and revival of botanical knowledge worldwide.
According to the New York Times, “…of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. Languages are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks.”
The Shuar language is one of those endangered—jeopardizing the community’s culture as well as their ancient knowledge of medicinal plants. To help preserve the traditions, the Paying Forward project encouraged communication between Shuar generations by pairing elders who speak the language with their grandchildren. In this way, the knowledge was passed down directly. So far, a database of 50 botanical remedies has been transmitted, photographed and is now part of a growing archive for current and future use.
Timothy Rose, Vitanova’s creative director, also embarked on the journey to meet the Shuar. “It was a chance to actually see firsthand the community and the effects of the program.” says Rose. “We got an opportunity to research new, exciting botanicals as well as meet the indigenous knowledge-keepers themselves. We have a commitment to our customers to be on top of new discoveries and work toward preserving what is out there.”
“The natural landscapes and vegetation were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life,” adds Vitanova CEO, Kamal El-Wattar. “Most moving was to be a witness as the elders shared their love of nature and their botanical remedies for various maladies.”
Vitanova is engaging with the world’s leading linguists, anthropologists and indigenous communities to preserve life-saving plant species and the knowledge about those plants––both of which dramatically affect all of humanity.
Archeological studies have discovered that the practice of herbal medicine dates as far back as 8,000 years ago in China, and written records about medicinal plants date back at least 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who used plants such as laurel, caraway and thyme as medicine.1,2
Today, global pharmaceutical companies are looking to plants as a potential source of new drug candidates.2,3,4,5,6 According to the Center for Biological Diversity, of the top 150 prescription drugs in the United States, at least 118 are made from natural sources––and some of the drugs are life-saving. A child suffering from leukemia in 1960 faced a 10 percent chance of remission. By 1997, the likelihood of remission had been increased to 95 percent, thanks to two drugs derived from a wild plant native to Madagascar.
Without thriving languages, however, the information about these plant medicines might be lost. The Endangered Languages Project is another organization that’s getting the word out about the topic. “With every language that dies, we lose an enormous cultural heritage; the understanding of how humans relate to the world around us; scientific, medical and botanical knowledge; and most important, we lose the expression of communities’ humor, love and life.”
Vitanova’s botanical knowledge liaison, linguistics Professor Maurizio Gnerre, discusses the impact the Paying Forward program has had on the Shuar community. “With the support of Vitanova, we’ve put children together with elders and created a special school for the kids to learn their own language and interact with nature.”
Gnerre has been working with the Shuar for decades, including Shuar tribal chieftain and head of the Shuar Language Rescue Project, Angel Antun. “We are so thrilled to receive help from Vitanova,” says Angel. “We must pass down what we know from our elders to our young people, or else our knowledge will be lost forever. Language loss means the end of our people.”
Along with their commitment to the Shuar culture, Vitanova founders are invested in other programs around the globe, from Indonesia to Eastern Europe to North Africa. This month, Rose is traveling through Indonesia to meet with tribal knowledge keepers. In addition, Vitanova is exploring various economic models for the vitamin brand, including purchasing botanical ingredients for use in future products.
“Our future health depends on preserving this knowledge,” says Rose. “Untold numbers of cures are out there. Vitanova knows that when a language and culture dies, vital botanical information goes along with it. And, that affects not just the indigenous people but all of us. We just can’t allow that to happen.”
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- Ethnopharmacology and integrative medicine – Let the history tell the future. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 10 Apr-Jun; 1(2): 100–109. Pulok K. Mukherjee, P. Venkatesh, and S. Ponnusankar