Quinine Hunters in Ecuador - The National Geographic Volume LXXXIX March, 1946

Publication Year: 
1946

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My anger at the Japs was even greater than usual that morning as I rode toward a pass in the eastern Andes with the cold rain beating me in the face and running down the back of my neck. They had grabbed virtually the entire known world supply of quinine in Java (page 351) and left us with an extremely questionable source in the bark of wild cinchona trees supposed to be growing somewhere in the Andes.
To fight in the South Pacific we had to have quinine, or a successful substitute; hence the frantic search for a new source had many North Americans wandering in the high rain forests of South America.
Pack animals, loaded with food and equipment for two weeks of exploration in Ecuador's Oriente, and our party of twelve native guides and packers were strung out along one of the frightful trails which are the only access to most of the Oriente (map, page 349).
If pack animals can negotiate them, they can't be so bad, I thought. but that was before I knew Ecuadoran mules. Scrambling up a narrow gorge where mud and water, belly deep, alternated with irregular boulders and rock slides, I learned that none of my former experience with mountain trails and riding animals applied in the Andes. They are unique.

Mules Climb Tough Trails

Arthur Featherstonehaugh and I wore rubber ponchos over woolen and were still cold. At an elevation of some 10,000 feet my hands were blue with the cold and my shivering even shook the mule. Still we continued to climb. We crossed a false divide and started down into a forested canyon. Here we were forced to dismount to lead the mules down a wash where they jumped from one rocky outcrop to another.
In between were steep mud slides where we slipped and fell, marvelling at the catlike surefootedness of the mules. We crossed a stream on two muddy logs laid side by side and only roughly flattened on the upper surface. The mules trotted across like goats.
The scramble up the opposite side of the gorge reminded us that we were nearly two miles up in the air. Lungs ached and hearts pounded. I felt dizzy and a bit sick, as if the mountain sickness were returning.
At the top "Feather" overtook me, toiling up the slope on foot as I had done. His face was gray and blotched. He was panting with such force that he could scarcely speak. After a time he was ready to go on, but he looked desperately ill and we urged him to ride again and rest.
However, Feather did the last grueling climb on foot, then stretched out on the ground. After a few minutes of resting, I heard him call to me in a rather faint voice, and when I reached him he was very ill.
We debated making camp or returning to a lower elevation at once, then decided to go on a short distance in the hope of finding water. This was the end of the mule trail. From this point to the forest on the far slope there was a foot track. Beyond that we should be forced to cut a trail every step of the way.
We were rigging a stretcher for Feather when I heard his low, terrified voice, "Frol, come here!"
Those were his last words. When I reached him he was doubled up in a spasm, again his face was gray and blotched, and a froth was forming on his lips. In less than two minutes the spasms ceased and he relaxed. Then, in what seemed no more than seconds, his body grew cold. I knew he was dead. Later an autopsy disclosed that a chronic heart condition, combined with the mountain sickness, caused his death.
The rain continued to pound. Clouds hung so low I felt I could reach up and touch them (page 258). We were shut in a gray, wet ridge on the eastern range of the Andes, 10,000 feet above the sea. I thought it was the most dismal place I had ever been.
I am sure that Feather would have preferred to have his body remain there--he was an ex-Marine--with his boots on, completing a mission. But custom would not allow that. We must make our dreary way back with the body slung on a stretcher...
In the fall of 1943 the volume of [cinchona] bark production in Ecuador (then the second-largest producer in Latin America) was gratifying to our group of scientists in business, which in effect the Cinchona Mission had become. But we were not proud of the quality. Dr. Alfred W. Bastress (page 348) and his staff of Ecuadoran chemists--Dr. George Gándara, Dr. Leopoldo Arteta, and Dr. Julio Pe?a-- were turning out hundreds of analysis on separate lots of bark purchased and on samples collected by the botanists. Some of it was good, but the greater proportion was low grade.
Most of the high grade bark was being purchased by the local Ecuadoran factories which, by government agreement, were to sell us the alkaloids extracted. But the black market for quinine in 1943 raised the uncontrolled price far beyond our ceiling, and we felt sure that private buyers were managing to smuggle sizable quantities out of Ecuador. By agreement, the Mission was to buy all bark and all processed materials in Ecuador
We hoped that alkaloids produced by factories which bought bark on the open market would be sold to us. In any case, we thought that the surplus above Ecuador's local needs would be sold to us for export to the United States. Smuggling activities placed a different complexion upon the matter.
The Ecuadoran Government was entirely cooperative, but did not have the technicians or proper organization to control its local quinine industry . We received, therefore, a request from the Government to control the industry as its representative.

easternandies
Vic Ramìrez, a Cuban-American member of the Mission acting for the Ecuadoran Government, organized a small group of inspectors and set up a system whereby the Mission purchased all bark and all processed material, with the responsibility of delivering fixed quantities of bark to the local factories.
Moreover, he directed a survey of Ecuador's stocks of quinine and Ecuador's requirements in order to ensure sufficient antimalarials for Ecuadoran malarial cases. Quinine was then distributed through the Department of Health.
In spite of this organization, some factories continued to purchase on the open market, and small quantities of quinine continued to find their way out of the country, thus depriving both Ecuador and the United Nations of a vital product.
Only small quantities were involved, but with a continuing free market the owners of land where rich stands were found held up production while they bargained for higher prices between the factories and the mission. This blocking of production was serious. Only small quantities of the high-grade pitayensis discovered by Bill Steere were being produced.
With the blessing of the Ecuadoran Government, Alfred Bogren and I went to the Hacienda Cambugan with a party of Ecuadorans and North Americans.
Cambugan lay on the western slope of the plateau above Otavalo, where mornings are chill and where clouds lie like damp blankets upon ranch buildings until the sun burns them away.
Colonel Espinosa, who was spending much of his time managing Cambugan, was delighted to see us, and while we took the chill out of our bones with warm fresh milk and rum we explained our mission. Bark being produced from his vast forest lands on the Pacific slope reached factories which sold the extracted quinine to private buyers; they in turn resold it and eventually it crossed the borders in illicit trade.
The colonel knew the significance of quinine and the vital need. He would be happy to assist us.
Two hours later the colonel, with a party of horsemen from his hacienda, joined us. A rather impressive cavalcade rode toward the high, cold grassland. We were all well mounted, I on a wirey little mule, and wrapped in varicolored ponchos. A wild, powerful looking Otavalo Indian in traditional blue poncho and pigtail led the band.
Some time later, as we galloped over the crest of the plateau at an elevation of some 12,000 feet, we saw approaching us a mule train of 14 pack animals and several riders. This was the traffic we sought, and when the two parties met on the narrow trail, we flanked the pack mules and their guards.
It was not sporting, because our party far outnumbered the other. The colonel simply informed the headman that he was taking the cargo and that they would be paid for the freighting costs at Cambugan.
The argument was brief, and the colonel's men rode back to the hacienda with the pack train. The business details could be settled in Quito when we returned. By that time producers of uncontrolled bark would know what was happening, and they would realize that illicit trade could be very expensive.

pp. 341, 356-360 of The National Geographic Volume LXXXIX March by Froelich Rainey (1946)

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