Director's Blog - 15 November 2019 - Gaining a 'Big Picture' perspective in the Andes Mountains...

Where to go to escape an email inbox? A little over a month ago, in an attempt to seek some rest and recreation, I boarded a plane and headed to Peru for my annual leave.

Peru lies on the North West coast of South America. It is known for its tremendous Andes mountain ranges, the ruins of Incan civilisations and the vast Amazon rainforest – there was much to discover and take in.


From the point of view of a protein scientist, there are untold riches – the fruits of evolution – found growing in the Amazon rainforest. As I walked through the lush forest paths, on one of the organised tours, the possibilities seemed endless. Some of our Bio21 chemists, such as Mark Rizzacasa, are tapping into the therapeutic potential of rainforest compounds, such as sylvesterol (an anti-cancer and antiviral compound produced by Borneo’s Aglaia stellatopilosa tree), synthesising compounds to treat cancer and other diseases.

From the rubber tyres on our cars, to the daily hit of caffeine, or the chocolate ‘pick-me-up’ in the afternoon, most of us cannot get through our day without the benefit of these well-known amazon plant products.

Whilst we are just beginning to tap into the potential of these compounds, indigenous peoples have been making use of the properties of the plants and animals of the Amazon rainforest and in the Andes for centuries as food, medicine and ceremonial beverages.


What also struck me was how these indigenous cultures of Peru were celebrated. By walking parts of the famous Inca Trail, I was able to experience breath-taking scenery and to visit the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca and Machu Pichu, experiencing a glimpse of a vibrant culture that had existed (1400-1500s AD). The Incas were a remarkable civilisation that built incredible structures, developed medicines and had their own calendar. By following the reoccurring star constellations of alpacas, pumas and snakes in the Milky Way, they knew when to sow and harvest their crops. Unfortunately, from 1529 when the Spanish Monarchy gave Francisco Pizarro permission to invade Peru, apart from the bloodshed wrought on the Incas, Western diseases like Smallpox decimated their population. Much of the Inca culture is lost to us together with their language and the knowledge it carried with it.

Tragically, as agriculture, logging and mining encroach on the rainforest, the lives of indigenous ‘isolated peoples’ are also changed forever. In fact, there are estimated to be about 15 tribes still living in the Amazon rainforest, who have retained their way of life, with little or no outside contact. This is now changing.

A world away, there are parallels with Australian indigenous communities who are fighting for ownership and use of their land, and the survival of their languages, culture and way of life. Recently I was astounded to hear that there were over 250 indigenous Australian languages spoken at the time of European settlement. It is a sobering thought that in 2019, the International Year of Indigenous languages, only 13 traditional Australian indigenous languages are still acquired by children. The Research Unit for Indigenous Language at the University of Melbourne is seeking to record and collect as many and as much of these languages as possible, for example through the ’50 words project’. Much has been lost, but these projects may help resurrect, or at least retain a record of these languages.

The loss of this indigenous knowledge and understanding impoverishes us all, yet it seems as though we keep on repeating the mistakes made by colonialists, with little understanding or regard for indigenous people’s rights, humanity or culture.


On top of the world in the Andes Mountain Range is the best place to get a ‘big picture’ perspective and reflect on our precious planet: the Amazon is the greatest carbon sink on the planet. Distressingly, the Amazon, California, USA and now in NSW, Australia we have seen unprecedented fires burning in 2019, some deliberately lit, others as a result of drought and dry landscapes.

Last week more than 11,000 scientists around the world have signed a scientific paper declaring a ‘climate emergency’. The scientific consensus is there and the alarm bells are sounding more shrilly by the day. They are becoming hard to ignore.

Some politicians are starting to take note and in the past week we saw Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews making a historic decision to ban logging of old growth forests in Victoria and to phase out the logging of native forests over the next 10 years.

These old growth forests, like those of the Amazon, are an incredible source of biodiversity as well as being the most effective way of combatting climate change.

My brief time in Peru left an enormous impression on me: the abundance of the rainforest, the plight of its people and the towering peaks and the splendour of nature. My attempt to get away, brought home the small and bigger picture of the precious natural resources, the value of indigenous cultures, the sheer beauty and fragility of our environment and the responsibility we all carry. As a scientist I saw there is much to learn from the indigenous culture of Peru. I hope we open our eyes to what our own indigenous culture can teach us about science and medicine before the stories get lost to history.