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Pharmaceutical Colonialism: 3 Ways that Western Medicine Takes from Indigenous Communities

Does modern medicine take from rural communities? At first, this seems outrageous. However, on closer inspection, we find three main methods of poaching: stealing indigenous knowledge, ‘biopiracy’, and the sale of pharmaceuticals at exorbitant prices.

Another example includes using developing countries and rural populations as test subjects in unethical clinical trials – for example on AIDS patients in South Africa.[1]

This article examines three methods that Western medicine takes from rural communities. We also examine the emerging new forms of medicine and how many people are beginning to appreciate the medical knowledge of different cultures around the world.

38851013 - hill tribe girls looking mountain view Traditional knowledge and culture is threatened by the expansive natural of the pharmaceutical industry

1.   Pharmaceutical colonialism: Stealing Indigenous Knowledge

First and foremost, what has been taken from indigenous communities for the last roughly 600 years is traditional knowledge about medicinal plants. It is interesting that the major advancements in Western medicine coincide very closely to escalating global colonialism by Western countries.

It's difficult to estimate the exact percentage of modern drugs that were originally based on traditional plant sources, because of the complex evolution of Western laboratory-made medicine. However, this percentage is known to be very high. In fact, a 2006 paper by Dr. A Gurib-Fakim states:

Natural products and their derivatives represent more than 50% of all the drugs in clinical use in the world. Higher plants contribute no less than 25% of the total.”[2]

The extent to which traditional knowledge permeates through Western medicine is too broad to explain fully in a small article like this. We’d need to write an entire book to cover the full content! So, we will just take a look at one example below.


How the West takes Indigenous knowledge: Anti-Malaria Drugs

Mosquitoes are, by far, the world’s most dangerous animals, spreading a number of diseases including Dengue fever, Zika virus, and malaria. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. In 2015, over 210 million people became infected with malaria, and a staggering 429 000 people died from the blood parasite.[3]

To combat the infectious disease, scientists have developed two major classes of anti-malarial drugs. These are both based on indigenous knowledge of plant medicine:

13268779 - mosquito full of blood on leaf Mosquitos kill more people than any other animal every year

1.  Quinine

Quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, native to South America. Contrary to propaganda by the Spanish inquisitors, which is still used in modern medicine today, Westerners did not ‘discover’ the cinchona tree.

Indigenous Peruvian cultures had been using the bark of the cinchona tree for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years before the arrival of the colonial forces from the North. They crushed it up and mixed it with water to ‘relieve shivering’ – a major sign of the feverish symptoms of malaria.[4]

Unlike traditional Chinese knowledge, which has survived until modern times, the ancient knowledge of South America cultures was almost completely destroyed by colonial forces. This makes tracing the historical use of the cinchona tree more difficult.[5]

After the inquisition of most traditional cultures in South America, the cinchona bark was brought back to Western Europe and was hailed as one of the most exciting discoveries of modern medicine.


The success of cinchona bark in Europe created a massive industry, initially run by the Spanish, but which was later overtaken by French and English industrialists.[6]

It’s important to know that the ‘traditional’ use of cinchona bark in 18th century Europe was in exactly the same method as its original use in indigenous societies: crushing up the barking and mixing it with water.

The chemical compound quinine was first extracted from cinchona bark in 1820 by two Frenchmen: Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou. This allowed purified quinine to replace traditional cinchona extracts.[7]


Interestingly, Western scientists have since discovered that cinchona bark actually contains several active components, which function in a synergistic relationship to kill the malaria parasite.[8]

In modern times, a number of quinine-based drugs have been developed, with varying success. The issue becomes complex here because, while these drugs were developed by Western scientists using modern technological laboratories, if it hadn’t been for the original indigenous knowledge, these compounds could not have been developed at all.

The quinine derivatives include Chloroquine, Pyrimethamine, and Mefloquine. Chloroquine was used as a spray along with DDT in the WHO’s malaria eradication plan (the efficacy and usefulness of this are still under debate: numerous countries that were sprayed with these chemicals soon developed strains of malaria that were resistant to the drugs).[9]

60411828 - workers are fogging for dengue control. mosquito borne diseases of zika virus. Quinine-based drugs were used in sprays to combat malaria around the world

2.     Artemisinin

Artemisinin is an active compound found in traditional Chinese medicine called Qinghao Su (sweet wormwood). This traditional Chinese medicine has been used to treat fevers for over a thousand years.

It is currently still extracted from plant sources, the majority of which are grown in China, Vietnam and East Africa. Once the full-grown plants are harvested, the chemical is extracted, leaving the pure artemisinin at a highly variable market price of between $120 - $1200 per kilogram.[10]

It’s interesting that the artemisinin-based drug combinations (ACTs) are the most expensive anti-malarial treatments available. This is despite the fact that it is one of the few malarial medications that are still mostly plant-based.


However, Western pharmaceutical companies are now developing synthetic forms of artemisinin. The new forms of artemsinin are genetically engineered and have intellectual property rights attached, potentially bringing in big revenues for the companies involved.

The proponents of the synthetic form of artemisinin claim that the synthetic form will be able to be sold for cheaper than the natural form. However, the average import price of natural artemsisin to India over the last ten years was around $370 per kilo – a fair amount cheaper than the price that the pharmaceutical companies are pushing for.[11]

Artemisinin farming sustains the livelihoods of an estimated 100’000 farmers. With synthetic derivatives being developed this puts the livelihoods of the farmers and their families at risk of poverty (estimated to be around 3-5 times the number of people as the farmers themselves).[12]


The ironic and disturbing thing about the whole situation is that the artemisinin farmers themselves are the ones who are most at risk of contracting malaria. In effect, they stand to not only have their incomes stripped by Western pharmaceutical companies but also to become physically dependent on the products of those very companies. [13]

16118463 - portrait of a burmese woman with thanaka powdered face working in farm Farmers livelihoods are threatened by the use of synthetic chemicals

2.    ‘Biopiracy’ – stealing natural resources and plants

The idea that modern medicine might be a form of colonialism seems at first to be quite outrageous! However, on closer inspection, it’s quite clear that a few nations continue to play the role of ‘missionary’, helping to save people in the ‘developing world’.[14] In some cases, though, the role of the ‘missionary’ becomes a little less clear.

The second way that Western medicine takes from indigenous communities is something called ‘Biopiracy’. This is similar to the method we described above, however, in this case, what is taken is not knowledge but the actual plants and resources themselves.

In biopiracy actions, plants and natural resources are stolen entirely from indigenous communities and are then used to develop drugs and medicines in the West. The indigenous communities benefit nothing from the theft of their resources.

Medicines developed from stolen materials are often sold back to the very people from whom the original plant-sources were stolen - at exorbitant prices.

Examples of medications that face biopiracy charges include:

  • A drug for diabetes developed in the UK from a Libyan plant, Artemisia judaica
  • A medicine for immunosuppression developed by GlaxoSmithKline which is derived from a chemical found in termite hills in Gambia
  • An HIV treatment taken from bacteria found in central Uganda
  • Antibiotic drugs developed from amoebas found in Mauritius and Venezuela
  • Anti-diarrhea vaccines developed from Egyptian bacteria [15]


According to Beth Burrows, president of Washington-based Edmond’s Institute:

Times have changed. It is no longer acceptable for the great white explorer to trawl across Africa or South America taking what they want for their own commercial benefit. It is no more than a new form of colonial pillaging. As there are internationally recognized rights for oil, so there should be for indigenous plants and knowledge.”[16]


In an ideal world, knowledge and resources would be shared equitably. Both the indigenous cultures and the modern world would benefit from the sharing of knowledge and medicinal plants, which could leave the world a much better place.

However, this is not the case in today’s world. More and more, we see evidence of pharmaceutical companies using rural communities as customers and guinea-pigs for medicine that was originally sourced from local knowledge.[17]

Traditional medicine is pushed off the market and indigenous knowledge is ‘dumbed down’ through development programs. This forces the majority of the world to have to work through cartel-like pharmaceutical corporations who extract unbelievably large sums of money from people, which we’ll look at below.[18]

21736635 - shanty house in bangkok water canals along the river bank, thailand Those who benefit the least from pharmaceutical colonialism are the ones who need healthcare the most

3.    Cost of medicine as a form of debt

One of the biggest methods of extracting money from rural and indigenous communities is through increased costs of medication.

Pharmaceutical colonialism often uses the premise of providing cheap medication for the world’s neediest to acquire local knowledge and natural resources. This premise is pushed into society through advertising campaigns and processes like lobbying. However, those who benefit most are often the shareholders, and not the people who need help.

An example was the 2009 Reuters report which found that nearly a million people were dying from malaria dying every year due to overly expensive medication. According to the report, Artemisinin combination therapies (ACTs) can cost up to 65 times the daily minimum wage in countries that are most affected by malaria. These high prices come after the government subsidies which push them down as low as possible.[19]


Another famous and recent example was the businessman Martin Shkreli, who pushed the cost of an AIDS drug up from $13.50 to over $700 per pill. This created an outrage on social media and it highlighted the underlying mindset behind most pharmaceutical companies – profit above all.

An interesting and disturbing source of information about this is the film Fire in the Blood, which documents how western pharmaceutical companies blocked the sale of cheap antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients in Sub-Saharan Africa.[20]

 “There is indeed a sense in which all modern medicine is engaged in a colonizing process… It can be seen in the increasing professionalization of medicine and the exclusion of 'folk' practitioners, in the close and often symbiotic relationship between medicine and the modern state, in the far-reaching claims made by medical science for its ability to prevent, control, and even eradicate human diseases.”[21]D Arnold, Colonizing the Body, 1993


Pharmaceutical companies have been responsible for saving millions of lives due to their advances in medicine. However, the number of lives that have been lost due to the lack of affordability of medicine and the lack of equity and sharing of profits is estimated to be extremely high.

Western capitalism has the potential to act as a new form of colonialism, and the modern medical method is one great way to extend the branches of capitalism into developing countries.

The slums in Brazil highlight the blatant inequality between nations and people

Understanding our relationship to plants

The most important part of combatting pharmaceutical colonialism through Western medicine is by starting to understand our true relationship to nature, and especially to plants. This is emerging in a new form of medicine called “Integrative Medicine”. It has also been known for thousands of years by traditional Chinese medical practitioners and in Ayurvedic medicine.

Integrative medicine is defined as a form of medicine that is “‘healing-orientated’ and takes into account the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle.”[22]


An important aspect of integrative medicine is that the patient and doctor are viewed as partners in the healing process. Understanding factors like nutrition and lifestyle are very important in this form of medicine.

While modern drug-based medicine is, of course, a necessity in many cases, there are also many cases where alternatives may be available.


The symptom-reactive treatment offered by Western medicine is not always ideal. Examples of this include the management of diabetes with insulin, the ‘treatment’ of heart disease with bypass surgery, and the management of atherosclerosis with numerous pharmaceutical compounds.[23]

For more information about this, check out these resources for reversing many of the most profit-generating diseases in Western society:

It may be beneficial to speak to an integrative medicine doctor or a nutritionist before consulting a ‘usual’ doctor, especially if you suffer from a chronic disorder.

These specialists understand our relationship to plants in much more detail than the doctors who are trained to prescribe pharmaceuticals to combat symptoms.

This type of holistic medicine is far more inclusive of indigenous knowledge, which has often been squashed through the work of pharmaceutical colonialism and international capitalist globalization.

49036057 - healing herbs in hessian bags and mortar with dry lavender, herbal medicine. Although at least 50% of modern drugs are manufactured from plant-sources, there is a widespread belief that plant-based medicine is inferior to synthetic Western-made chemicals

3 Top Natural Supplements from Around the World:

1.     Baicalin

Blue Skullcap flowers Baicalin was originally extracted from the beautiful Blue Skullcap

Baicalin is an interesting compound extracted from the Blue Skullcap, a herb found in China and a part of traditional Chinese medicine. The Baicalin compound and the Blue Skullcap plant material have been found to have a number of health benefits.

Baicalin extracts have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over a thousand years, and we are very happy that western science is coming to understand the importance of this great herbal supplement.[27]

Luckily, Baicalin remains a part of Chinese traditional medicine and has not been stolen by pharmaceuticals. Chinese traditional healers used the S. baicalensis as a raw plant for treating bronchitis, hepatitis, diarrhea, and tumors. Today, you can purchase Baicalin online as a supplement to help promote relaxation, as a potent anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and potential antibiotic.[28]


2.     Green Tea Extract

green tea leaves for health Green Tea, a powerful health-promoting and calming substance

Green tea is often considered as the healthiest drink available today! Green tea extract is rich in polyphenols and catechins, especially a compound called ECGC. Green tea extracts are made from raw green tea plant material, which is often sourced from its original place of use – China.[29]

However, tea has permeated the world and is now grown in massive quantities in several countries. China has the biggest proportion of tea production – in 2007, China produced over 30% of the world’s tea. Other big names in tea agriculture include India and Kenya.[30]

This is good because the earliest writings of tea stem from China and India, and the crop has remained true to its countries of origin – prevailing against western domination. Interestingly, all tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. The different types of tea (black, white, and green) are produced through different cultivation techniques.

Benefits of green tea extract include extremely potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It has also been researched for potential use in cancer prevention and prevention of heart disease. For more information about the benefits of green tea extract, check out our product description page.[31]


3.     Hordenine

Bitter-orange-tree The bitter orange tree, a great source of Hordenine

Hordenine is one of the most important chemical compounds found in the Bitter Orange plant species. Bitter Orange is a plant that is native to China and has a long history of use in Chinese herbal medicine. The Bitter Orange plant is native to tropical Asia and Africa.[32]

The chemical components of Bitter Orange are sold as separate chemical compounds and include Synephrine and Hordenine. Bitter Orange is sometimes used as an ‘ephedrine replacement’ since the ban on ephedrine in the United States.[33]

The Bitter Orange is a primary source of Hordenine, and is grown around the world. It provides a livelihood to farmers in Asia as well as in Europe and Africa. Synthetic forms of the compounds in Bitter Orange are available, but we recommend purchasing plant extracts due to their more sustainable nature.

The benefits of Hordenine include a mild mood-lift, mental stimulation, and improved focus and energy. Hordenine can be thought of as a mild stimulant and may work as a Nootropic. Hordenine is often combined with Phenylethylamine (PEA).[34]

Pharmaceutical Colonialism: Is it a thing?

In conclusion, there are a number of ways that the Western world has infringed on the rights of indigenous communities around the world through medicine. Of course, advancements in Western medicine are important and have helped to save millions of lives around the world.

However, there is a growing consciousness, even in the traditional Western medical field, of indigenous knowledge from other communities. These include traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and “integrative medicine”.


By pushing traditional knowledge out and overwhelming the community, pharmaceutical companies are able to act like a cartel. This forces people to buy their products and to exclude possible alternative treatments.

Many herbs and medicines that were once used in traditional medicine from other parts of the world are now available online as dietary supplements. Some of these products are no longer available due to restrictions by governments and lobbying pressure groups. However, you can still purchase plant extracts and substances with a long history of use and scientifically-verified health benefits today.

51114373 - food on heart plate with stethoscope cardiology concept Alternatives to modern medicine exist in plain sight, in the form of diet, supplements, and lifestyle


[1] Medical Neocolonialism: Big Pharma Outsources Unethical Clinical Trials To South Africa by Magda Fahsi, Mint Press News, July 2013, available online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[2] A Gurab-Fakim, “Medicinal plants: Traditions of yesterday and drugs of tomorrow”, Molecular Aspects of Medicine, Volume 27, Issue 1, February 2006, Pages 1–93

[3]10 facts on malaria”, December 2016, World Health Organization online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[4]Plants that changed the world: cinchona”, Tom Freeman, Big Picture Education, available online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[5]The Story of the Conquistadors”, by Michael Wood, March 2011, BBC History online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[6]Quinine: The plant-based medicine that saved millions of lives”, August 2016, Tambopata Ecolodge, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[7] G Edwards, “Antimalarial chemotherapy: Mechanisms of action, resistance and new directions in drug discovery”, Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2001 Oct; 52(4): 464.

[8] P Rasoanaivo et al., “Whole plant extracts versus single compounds for the treatment of malaria: synergy and positive interactions”, Malar J. 2011; 10(Suppl 1): S4, Published online 2011 Mar 15

[9] History of antimalarials, Medicines for Malaria Venture, available online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[10]Synthetic biology’s first malaria drug meets market resistance”, M Peplow, February 2016, Nature.com, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[11]Artemisinin Imports into India (two year rolling data, updated 6 June 2016)”, A2S2 Market Data Report, available online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[12] Jim Thomas, “Why Synthetic Artemisinin Is Still a Bad Idea - A Response to Rob Carlson”, ETC Group blog, June 2013, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[13]Synthetic anti-malarial compound is bad news for artemisia farmers”, Jim Thomas, The Guardian online, April 2013

[14]How to end a neocolonialist approach to global health training” by Michael Morse, November 2014, Devex.com, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[15]The new piracy: how West 'steals' Africa's plants”, by Anthony Barnett, August 2006, The Guardian online, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[16]Kenya loses Sh70m to biopirates” By Mwagni Muiruri, NW Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, NWrage.org, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[17] Pharma industry accused of drug testing in poorer countries with lax regulation by Martin Koch, May 2013, DW News online, retrieved on March 10, 2017

[18] SB Banjeree, “Who Sustains Whose Development? Sustainable Development and the Reinvention of Nature”, SAGE Journals, Vol 24, Issue 1, 2003

[19]Millions die because of high malaria drug prices”, by Kate Kelland, November 2009, Reuters Health News, available online by Kate Kelland, ws, available online ing, retrieved on March new forms of medicine and how many people are beginning to appreci

[20]Fire in the Blood”, Documentary film, 2012, Director: Dylan Mohan Gray, Producers: Dylan Mohan Gray, Rumana Gray

[21] D. Arnold, Colonizing the Body. State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1993), pp. 9-10.

[22]What is Integrative Medicine?”, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona, available online

[23] International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, available online

[24] Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days, documentary film, 2009, Director: Aiyana Elliott

[25]Reverse Heart Disease In 24 Days”, By MJ. Sullican, MD, and E Michaud, Prevention Magazine online: Heart Health, November 2011 f Chinese traditional medicine  Phenylethylamine (PEA). s a mild stimulant and may aand how many people are beginning to appreci

[26]From Heart Attack to Healthy Heart in Two Years With No Meds”, T TRIBIANO, PHD, Forks Over Knives: Success Stories, Feb 2017, available online

[27] H Chen et al., “Exploring Therapeutic Potentials of Baicalin and Its Aglycone Baicalein for Hematological Malignancies”, Cancer Lett. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2015 Nov 1.

[28]Baicalin”, Examine.com, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[29] SB Chacko et al., “Beneficial effects of green tea: A literature review”, Chin Med. 2010; 5: 13, Published online 2010 Apr 6

[30]Tea Agriculture in China”, Facts and Details, Jeffrey Hays, April 2010, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[31] Y Suzuki et al., “Health-promoting effects of green tea”, Proc Jpn Acad Ser B Phys Biol Sci. 2012 Mar 9; 88(3): 88–101

[32]Synephrine”, Examine.com, retrieved on March 9, 2017

[33]Bitter Orange Under Scrutiny as New Ephedra”, by Mary Duenwald, New York Times, October 2015, available online

[34] Hapke HJ, Strathmann W, “Pharmacological effects of Hordenine” Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr. 1995 Jun;102(6):228-32.