LAURENT Pordie does not look like an academic. His long dread-locks and casual attire
seem more indicative of a back packer than a scientist. But as soon as he speaks
there is no doubt about his profession. His passion for his work is infectious.
He and his wife have been working in northern Cambodia with hill tribe communities.
Pordie is a pharmacist specializing in ethnic medicines while Muriel is involved
in environmental education. They have set up Nomad - a non-profit organization based
in France to promote the use of natural resources.
Pordie has just finished his latest three-month research project in Mondulkiri, studying
the medicine of the Phnong with the help of Medicins du Monde. Before that he spent
about a year in Ratanakiri on the same quest.
For the moment his work in Cambodia is finished. He is to present his research findings
at a conference in India and then he and Muriel will move on to other work. But they
hope to return to Cambodia because their experiences here have been far removed from
a straightforward study of the properties of medicinal herbs.
Pordie's first task was to update the first western study of the plants of the region
which was done more than 50 years ago - local healers have their own universal cataloging
system based on the healing properties of plants.
He then looked to the local traditional healers for more information, but he says
they wanted to be sure he was sincerely interested. One healer said to him: "I
need to know your insides first, then I will show you some of my magic."
The concept of the magic in the healing interested Pordie. He says as a scientist
he knew that some of the plants had medicinally useful compounds in them; some, for
example, were anti-malarial. But he also discovered that their efficiancy was enhanced
by rituals. "Ceremonies increase the power of the plants." Pordie is open
to the reasons for this phenomenon.
He also had an experience with a young traditional healer who locals say came by
her gifts through possession by spirits. He says the 17-year-old woman used a plant
called protiel for treating pregnant women during labor. Protiel is very toxic and
Pordie says he saw a person who had been given it unwittingly die after a short illness.
However in the hands of the young woman he says protiel was a useful and safe medicine.
He says she could not explain how she knew how to use it or grow it. She told Pordie
that "it just happened".
As a scientist Pordie is aware of the basis of many herbal cures but he says the
influence of magic or spirituality in the healing process needs more study.
He says his experiences with the traditional healers - their perception, skills and
forest craft - tells him his studies have not even scratched the surface of the hill
tribes' traditional medicine.