Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed

Eating bark September 6th, 2015 by

It is difficult to imagine why you would want to taste tree bark. Yet somewhere hundreds of years ago, probably in Peru or Bolivia, someone discovered that consuming the bark of Cinchona helped to prevent and treat malaria. Where there’s a demand for a valuable crop, there are farmers willing to grow and sell it.

Guy holds red treeFirst, a few facts about Cinchona. There are 23 species native to South America. All produce quinine, nature’s original anti-malarial drug, though in variable amounts. The relative abundance of local names for Cinchona species in Ecuador suggests that native users knew empirically what European scientists would only discover through laboratory testing of different species.

The Jesuits were the first to publicise the properties of Cinchona beyond South America, hence the popular name Jesuit’s bark. But this is no longer used and quinine bark or quinquina in French is more common, linking neatly to the tree’s origins. Quinine comes from kina, the Quechua word for Cinchona trees.

Quinine was the wonder drug that alleviated misery and suffering from one of the world’s most devastating diseases. I say ‘was’ because quinine has largely been superseded by synthetic derivatives such as chloroquine and other anti-malarial compounds manufactured in the laboratory or discovered in other plants – such as Artemisia.

But it’s impossible to overstate the importance of quinine to individuals, families and also global development. The first attempt to build the Panama Canal collapsed because of huge fatalities to the workforce, largely due to malaria and yellow fever. The second attempt succeeded because the cause of malaria and other diseases were better understood and therefore managed. And because of quinine.

Lady2 packs stemFiammetta Rocco in her intriguing book about Cinchona, ‘The Miraculous Fever Tree’, tells this and many other stories, where quinine was the quiet healer, the tree bark that saved lives and gave hope to many families that vulnerable children would survive.

Rocco also maps the various attempts to establish Cinchona plantations in Africa and Asia, despite the opposition of Spanish colonial authorities, with plant collectors and opportunists attempting to obtain seeds from the most productive trees. Eventually they succeeded and initially quinine bark was successfully produced in Java and later India. In 1930 Indonesia produced almost 100% of world production. Today India and Indonesia produce paltry amounts and the world’s major source of quinine comes from an unlikely source.

I saw my first Cinchona plantations in 2004 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Seeds were brought via Indonesia, a gift to Prince Leopold from the Dutch. The initial plantations established from the 1930s onward were around Bukavu in South Kivu. They continued to flourish until regional conflict disrupted business in the late 1990s and losses due to Phytophthora root rot mounted.

Today, the bulk of production comes from North Kivu, DRC, in an area to the south of Butembo. It’s unclear how Cinchona got to Butembo from Bukavu – a journey of several days by road – but it could have been an attempt by the quinine buyers to seek disease-free areas, or simply to expand production in an area less troubled by conflict.

P1090482If this was an attempt to escape Phytophthora root rot, then the move to North Kivu has only been partially successful. The disease still causes major losses and farmers now have to move further afield to find fertile land for new plantings.

Cinchona is best grown on an 8 -12 year cycle, leaving stems to become enriched with quinine. Trees are however often stripped at three to four years-old, meeting short term needs for cash in an area where income opportunities are limited. Despite the disease, an absence of any research or significant technical support and no extension services, the quinquina business continues. There’s a steady demand for quinine bark from India and Indonesia, less so as an anti-malarial these days and more for other medicinal properties.

Quinine may be good for you but it has an unpleasant, bitter taste, much remarked upon by the workers who survived the Panama Canal. Indian tonic water, a carbonated drink containing quinine, was an early attempt to encourage quinine uptake, especially when combined with gin. Less well known is that the bubbles in tonic water speed entry of alcohol to the blood, making this the “most efficient means – short of injection – of quinine uptake” according to one source.

Cinchona has come a long way from its origins on the slopes of the Andes. Compared to other valuable crops it has received paltry support from development projects, yet farmer ingenuity and an effective export market ensures that quinine bark remains a viable business, benefitting some of the poorest communities in Central Africa.

Further Reading

Fiammetta Rocco (2004). The Miraculous Fever Tree: the cure that changed the world. Harper Collins, London

Matthew Parker (2007). Hell’s Gorge: the battle to build the Panama Canal. Arrow Books, London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Design by Olean webdesign