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This book is about a forgotten chapter in Mexican history : the search for wild yams called barbasco . Products derived from barbasco altered modern medicine , aided advances in science , and , arguably , granted millions of women some control over reproduction . When we open our medicine cabinets today , it is likely that we find medications that in earlier versions were derived from compounds found in barbasco . From 1940 to the mid1970s , these yams were the ideal source material for the global production of synthetic steroid hormones . Mass production of progesterone , cortisone , and , eventually , oral contraceptives was possible because of the availability of Mexican yams .
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Beyond the history of a tuber , this book is an exploration of the local and social consequences of the global search for medicinal plants . Specifically : What happens in rural Mexico when global trends lead international laboratories to confer value to a local weed ? 2 This story is significant for several reasons . It forces us to reconsider how local and national histories affect globalized science and markets . It urges us to rethink the means by which Mexican peasants attained social and political legitimacy in the late twentieth century . And it also invites us to discuss the power and the malleable meaning of science in the most unusual of spaces , the Mexican countryside , during a crucial time , the 1970 – 76 populist regime . Additionally , this story contests the idea that science could only be copied but not produced in Latin America , a region that for many was , at best , on the periphery of knowledge production . 3
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manufactured . Chemical work on barbasco transformed Mexico from a “ presumably backward ” country , as it was described in press releases , into the world’s premier supplier of synthetic hormones . 7 Mexico monopolized this production until the late 1960s , when domestic politics and alternative sources of raw materials deposed Mexico from its steroid – producing throne .
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This book , then , answers that explicit question and explores the implication that thousands of Mexicans were needed to remove barbasco from southeastern Mexico . Despite the sheer numbers of individuals and yams involved in the barbasco trade , few within Mexico remember barbasco today . One can speculate that the end product , patented medications , was so far removed from the raw material that it was impossible to make the connection . Or , conversely , barbasco had no monetary value before the 1940s , and hence it attracted little , if any , national attention outside of rural Mexico .
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Given these trends , it should not be too remarkable that Echeverría would believe that science , in this case chemistry , could , if not fix , then aid the decaying countryside . What is surprising , however , is that some barbasco pickers took science , this language of elite social control , and made it their own .
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Those the government chose to include as part of this modern project is what makes this story compelling . Arguably root pickers — indigenous , poor , and uneducated — were in many respects the antithesis of modernity , but in their capacity as gatherers of the root they became the essential link to finally bring a modern project to Mexico : domestic patented medications . The inherent ideological contradictions in this plan reveal much about Mexico at the end of the twentieth century .
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By incorporating Mexican peasants into the history of medical discoveries , this book challenges previous histories which place the scientist and the laboratory at the center of the tale . But by focusing on rural Mexico and Mexicans , my intent is certainly not to imply that campesinos became research scientists ; rather , I seek to point out that a political moment invited yam pickers to believe that they could produce steroids .
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By including rural Mexicans in the narrative of discovery , I press readers to accept that scientists , both domestic and foreign , were not working in a cultural vacuum : they relied heavily on rural Mexicans ’ knowledge of soil conditions , growth cycles , and the minute particularities between different species of yams .
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When historians of science asked , “ Who is capable of engaging in science ? ” they encouraged us to include , for example , gender in our analysis of European science production . 15 Bringing campesinos and the action of the Mexican government into the narrative of steroid hormone synthesis lets us analyze how local and national events influenced global science production and how world events influenced Mexican campesinos and how they interpreted and internalized those events . Other studies have shown that when scientific centers arose as historical actors , “ both science and the locality were changed by the event . ” 16 However , the case of barbasco in Mexico goes one step further by demonstrating how locals appropriated science to redefine themselves .
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When I initially set out to do my research — immersed in literature on medicinal plants , bioprospecting , and the rights of a nation over its own natural resources — I believed that this would be a historical case of locals and pharmaceutical companies battling over the patent rights to the medicinal properties of plants . I knew that there had been a movement to nationalize barbasco in the 1970s , so I assumed that it would be traditional healers and local root pickers who began the movement claiming ownership of the knowledge about barbasco . It was not a farfetched assumption , since the story had many of the key elements of today’s current battles against pharmaceutical companies . But then I looked deeper . The story of barbasco in Mexico is more complex than that .
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By using the case of barbasco and , in particular , of those who picked the yam , I push the argument beyond biopiracy , benefit sharing , and the controversy over traditional knowledge , which has often dominated the discussion . Recent scholarship has elucidated the links between medicinal plants and pharmaceutical – industry or university researchers , as well as the often – lopsided relationship between the industry and local participants . 21 Historicizing the case of barbasco lets me add to these discussions by showing that local allegiances and power structures do not remain static over time — an exploited campesino may , ten years later , be the exploiter of future yam pickers . In other words barbasco pickers were not always unified , universally exploited , or equally savvy about their relationship and agreements with industry and the State , as the Melquíades Santiagos of this history illustrate . Moreover , engaging the discipline of history in discussions about bioprospecting allows for a closer examination of the long – term sociocultural effects of the ongoing search for medicinal plants . The quest for medicinal plants may be driven by the aim of transnational interests , but a successful outcome is directly intertwined with the history , politics , and social conditions of the people and the environment in which the medicinal plant is found .
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Most recently , Myrna Santiago in her treatment of oil discovery in northern Veracruz , Christopher Boyer in his analysis of the timber industry in Michoacán , and Stuart McCook in his exploration of Caribbean crops , among others , have challenged scholars to link social transformations and land – tenure questions to the study of the environment . 27 Within that same vein , a study of barbasco extraction from Mexico’s jungles lets us analyze pivotal changes in rural relationships , peasant organizations , and the links between the countryside and the capital at a time of diminished government subsidies for rural areas . Therefore , this analysis to some extent also questions the traditional depiction of Mexican campesinos in the second half of the twentieth century ( 1960 – 80 ) , when , arguably , being a campesino was already anachronistic .