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Toxic Remedies: On the cultivation of medicinal plants and urban ecologies
While most of us tend to think of pharmaceuticals as purely chemical compounds, the majority of them contain plants and medicinal herbs—either through direct processing in the case of plant-based medicines or indirectly when plants serve as models for synthetic drugs. At these pharmaceutical crossroads, the health of the planet and our bodies become entangled in an experimental mode of cohabitating each others’ increasingly toxic worlds. In this paper, I use the cultivation of pharmaceutical plants as a case to explore the technosocial entanglements of ecosystems and human bodies in what has been referred to as “planetary health.” I follow the grassroots activities of a group of young Vietnamese ethnobotanical experts that resulted in a unique constellation of bringing plants and people together in the face of environmental damage and political injustice. These entrepreneur-activists have set out to protect the indigenous knowledge of cultivating medicinal plants endangered by environmental degradation, industrial pollution and deforestation in the mountainous areas of Northern Vietnam. As highlighted in this short ethnographic account, rather than simply cataloging and conserving such knowledge, that has been a focus of many similar grassroots activism and scientific research in the past, they are forming new alliances by transplanting various types of rare medicinal plants into home gardens and for harvesting. Thinking through the question of how do people and medicinal plants come to cultivate and be cultivated by one another may help us to highlight the stakes that are involved practices of scaling.