By JULIE DUVALL
Paul Cox, a professor at BYU for fifteen years, gained international recognition for his efforts in the field of ethnobotany.
Cox has been featured in TIME magazine and on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather for his work in ethnobotany.
“Ethnobotany is the study of how indigenous peoples use plants for clothing, shelter, food, medicine and a myriad of other uses,” Cox said in an e-mail interview.
Cox spends time in the rain forests of the South Pacific and North America trying to find plants with medicinal value. He said he uses the knowledge of the people native to those areas who have been using plants as medicine for centuries.
“Plants are far more innovative chemists than humans, and many plant-derived medicines have yet to be synthesized. About 25 percent of all prescription drugs in the United States come from plants,” Cox said.
Cox said he became interested in ethnobotany after his mother died with breast cancer. He said he has had some interesting leads on plants that may help fight breast cancer, but he said the closest he has come so far to a cure is with the discovery of Prostratin, an anti-promoter.
Cox stressed the importance of limiting deforestation so the plants that are potentially beneficial to humans are not destroyed.
“The problem is very serious — far more of the Amazon was burned in 1997 than in any previous year,” Cox said.
But even with the disturbing trends, Cox said he remains optimistic about the future.
“I worship a Lord who sees even the sparrow’s fall, and I pray that He will help us protect His creation. I just hope that a few rain forests, whales, desert tortoises and canyons will be left when He returns. If not, we might face some uncomfortable questions from someone who pronounced all of these things ‘good’ in the beginning,” Cox said in the e-mail interview.
Cox said while attitudes are changing all over the world, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on conservation.
“Conservation is ultimately a spiritual issue, a recognition of the intrinsic sacredness of this earth. If you love the Artist, don’t slash his painting,” Cox said.
Cox said everyone can and should be involved in the conservation effort.
“Local clean-ups and conservation projects, if carried out in a spirit of meekness, can become acts of worship. Many developing countries wonder why we should be interested in saving their rain forests when we don’t conserve our own resources,” Cox said.
Cox is currently on a leave of absence from BYU and is serving in Sweden as the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science at Uppsala University and the Swedish Agriculture University. This professorship was established by the Royal Academy of Sciences in honor of the King’s 50th birthday.
While in Sweden, Cox said he is organizing a national effort on documenting ethnobotany. He is also writing a book on Carl Linnaeus, the founder of ethnobotany, he said.