Carolyn Little, 2015
A book described on its back cover as a “contemporary thriller [which] explores the growing interest in biodiscovery and the modern crime of biopiracy, against the back-drop of the beauty and challenges of the Daintree World Heritage site … and [the] popular resort world of Port Douglas” recently leapt from the shelf of my local library into my hand. It lived up to its promise, too, being both entertaining and informative.
The (perfectly valid) scientific background to the story is a search in the Daintree rainforest for a botanical cure for the affliction known locally as the Daintree ulcer or Mossman ulcer. It is a nasty flesh-eating ulcer with no known prevention or cure, caused by a bug (Mycobacterium ulcerans) related to those which cause leprosy and tuberculosis. It is globally rare but is locally problematic in Africa, where it is known as the Buruli ulcer, and in China, Japan and other tropical countries. Here in Australia it occurs in coastal areas of the Wet Tropics and (oddly) Victoria.
We still don’t know where in the environment it lurks or how it infects people but there are suggestions that it may jump to humans from other mammals (in Australia, perhaps possums) via insect bites. Its incidence in Victoria nearly tripled from 2015-17 according to the Victorian Health Dept (see the “Notifiable infections” link on this page ) but again, we don’t know why.
That’s rather more medical science, if you follow the links, than you will find in the novel but this blog does have a tropical wildlife emphasis. Back to the book!
Bioprospecting is, “the process of discovery and commercialization of new products based on biological resources. Despite indigenous knowledge being intuitively helpful, bioprospecting has only recently begun to incorporate such knowledge in focusing screening efforts for bioactive compounds,” according to Wikipedia which adds that, “Bioprospecting may involve biopiracy, the exploitative appropriation of indigenous forms of knowledge by commercial actors.”
Commercial control of natural resources and traditional knowledge can be hotly contested. Common sense suggests that people own their knowledge and own the crops and medicines they grow, but big business tends to ignore common sense and claim ownership – and, consequently, control and profits – whenever and wherever it can get away with doing so. For an overview of the issues, try this page.
Oops! Back to the book again!
The Bergstrom of the title is a bioprospector, a Swedish medical scientist searching the Daintree rainforest for a cure for the Buruli Ulcer which he saw in Africa. He has good intentions but, unfortunately for him, others are have the same idea but are in it for the money and don’t care who gets hurt. When he goes missing his friend, local tourist guide Jason McNeil, initiates and supplements the police enquiries.
This is Carolyn Little’s first novel and she brings to it a good knowledge of the science, both medical and botanical, and the local area. If it lacks a little polish, this reader, at least, is happy to forgive that for the sake of an unusual, topical (and tropical) story line.