Alfredo Gomez-Beloz at a Venezuelan research site
Alfredo Gomez-Beloz has been studying plants his whole life. As a child, he accompanied his grandmother on plant-collecting missions. They combed the Indiana Dunes for pine needles to ease her arthritis and chamomile flowers to dry and use as tea.
"My grandmother was a Tarascán Indian from Michoacan, Mexico," Gomez-Beloz says. "She would prepare containers of pine needles and alcohol. The alcohol would extract a compound from the needles, and she'd rub that on herself. Her bedroom always smelled of pine needles."
Gomez-Beloz's grandmother was his first influence and Spanish his first language. He suspects there were some curanderos - folk healers - in his family. Given his background, Gomez-Belozís plan to establish gardens of medicinal plants in Venezuela's Orinoco River delta comes as no surprise.
The route from Chicago's Southeast Side to South America took shape gradually as Gomez-Beloz assembled his interests into career goals. As an undergraduate at Roosevelt University in Chicago, he majored in biology, thinking that he might go into medicine, but his curiosity about anthropology pulled him in another direction. He had always enjoyed watching PBS television specials on distant lands and peoples. While he was in college, a particularly intriguing one-hour show on the Hoarani Indians of Ecuador left him wanting to know more. He visited the UIC science library where he discovered books by Richard Evans Schultes, the father of ethnobotany.
"Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between people and plants. They're intertwined," Gomez-Beloz explains. "When you eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, that's a plant. Aspirin also originally came from a plant. Without plants, there is no human life." Schultes had spent twelve years in Western Amazonia during the 1940s and 1950s. Reading his book, Plants of the Gods, Gomez-Beloz realized for the first time that it was possible to become a researcher studying how people use plants.
Next, during his senior year at Roosevelt, Gomez-Beloz signed up for a course in plant taxonomy at the UIC College of Pharmacy with Dr. Djaja Djenoel Soejarto. Coincidentally, Dr. Soejarto had been one of Schultes's PhD students at Harvard University. With Dr. Soejarto's encouragement, Gomez-Beloz applied for and was granted a New York Botanical Garden Everett Internship. Gomez-Beloz spent the summer following college graduation (1991) at the garden studying various aspects of botanical research. In October, Dr. Michael J. Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, and Gomez-Beloz's mentor, invited him to go the Orinoco River delta in Venezuela to work on an ethnobotanical survey of the plants used by the Warao Indians. Gomez-Beloz eagerly signed on. His task was to pinpoint plants growing in the area and describe their uses as medicines, foods, and construction materials as well as for other purposes. The work was fascinating, but he experienced true culture shock. He missed his family and familiar sights like stores and traffic. Some of the natives spoke Spanish, but were more comfortable with their own language. The grammar of their language had nothing in common with English or any Latin-based language.
After his first visit to Venezuela, Gomez-Beloz knew he did not want to become a doctor. Instead, he wanted to find a profession that would allow him to combine his curiosity about plants with his interest in anthropology and health. He also wanted to return to Venezuela to continue his research. As an undergraduate, he had heard about the value of an MPH. Now that course of study seemed like the perfect answer to his needs.
"In the MPH program, you learn so many things, not just how to collect statistics or test water," he says. "It's very much a social science that you can use all over the world. Among other things, I learned how to obtain information using questionnaires, and I gained an understanding of chronic and acute illnesses and their etiology."
Gomez-Beloz received his MPH in 1995. He is currently a PhD candidate in plant sciences at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. He hopes to complete his degree by 2000. Since 1995, he has returned twice to Venezuela. On his most recent trip, in January 1998, he flew to Caracas, then journeyed by bus for ten hours to the frontier town of Tucupita. There, the road ended. He negotiated with local boatman for a ride down the Orinoco River and through the delta to the Winikina River research site. Ten hours later he arrived at his destination, the town of Ohidu Sanuka, or "little moriche palm."
"I was living in a swamp forest, and I was wet all the time," Gomez-Beloz explains. "It was January and 95 degrees by nine A.M." His basic job was to survey the types of plants that the local people grow in their "swiddens." Each swidden is a very small area of the forest. Trees are removed, crops are planted for a year or two, then the forest is allowed to return. In each swidden, Gomez-Beloz stretched a fifty-meter length of rope, then counted all the plants in the five-meter area on each side of the rope. In one month, he covered twenty-two swiddens or about 7,310 square meters of forest. He also collected plants, added to his collection of ethnobotanical uses of plants, gathered health data, and learned more about Warao agriforestry systems. As he worked, the fronds of temiche palm trees swayed two stories above his head. "I love those palms. They're so majestic," Gomez-Beloz says.
Gomez-Beloz has received a Fulbright Fellowship for the academic year 1998-99. He and his wife Selina and their two year-old son Joaquin will spend the year in Venezuela. He will be affiliated with the Instituto Venezolono de Investigaciones Cientificas. His goal is to establish a research base complete with gardens of medicinal plants. The gardens will give the Warao better access to the plants they already use and will allow Gomez-Beloz to study the plants' various uses. He has received permission from the village headmen to start his project and is seeking funding in the United States. He also plans to teach two to three villagers in each of four villages how to take medical histories and keep track of the population's illnesses. Eventually, some of the medicinal plants used in Venezuela may prove useful for treating patients in the United States. Gomez-Beloz calls that a political issue, noting that the Venezuelan government would have to give its approval. Also, because the stages that lead to United States Food and Drug Administration approval of drugs can be many years long, Gomez-Beloz would want to reward the villagers immediately for their collaboration.
However, bringing new medicines to the U.S. market is not one of Gomez-Belozí goals. His perspective on medicine comes through the eyes of an ethnobotanist. "Two-thirds of the world's population uses plants for medicine. I hope to incorporate a system that integrates the traditional use of plants as medicine and biomedicine. That way, you don't just nullify the use of plants and replace them with Western medicine. You allow the two to complement each other. If you nullify tradition, and get people accustomed to using pills, they lose their knowledge of how to use plants. Then, if the pills are not available, which is usually the case in this region, the people are in a bind."
Thanks to the early influences of his grandmother and with support from the many mentors who have encouraged him throughout his life, Gomez-Beloz is turning his dreams into reality.
Contributed by Janice Rosenberg
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