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 Established since 1963 

  Putting Plant Know-Hows on Book 

6th. September, 1998. 


HIGH on the agenda of People and Plants Southeast Asia is to address the crisis of dwindling traditional indigenous knowledge of plants. 

Indigenous folks living close to forests may know best local flora and their uses, the problem is nothing is written down. 

The answer? Record this knowledge before it is too late. 

The result is the first ever Kadazandusun manual of its kind titled Wakau Kayu om Sakor – Tubal Tinungkusang Sompion Kadazandusun (Climbers, Trees and Herbs - Traditional Medicines of the Kadazandusun Family). produced in close partnership with Kinabalu Park. 

    Briefly, what the manual contains are names, including their scientific names and very simplified information of specially selected 40 common medicinal plants known to and used by 15 communities living around the 734 sq. km Kinabalu Park. 

   Other summarised information include each plant's habit or morphorlogy, that is, whether they are classified tree, shrub, grass of climber; their uses, parts used (e.g. -young leaves) and how they are used (e.g.- pound and paste on). 

    "Specifically, this is an educational intervention aimed at not only retaining, but also reinforcing and revitalising indigenous knowledge on plants," said Agnes Lee Agama, People  and  Plants  Young Professional Awardee, a psychology graduate from the Australian National University, who co-ordinated the production of the manual since January this year. 

    But the manual is far from an exhaustive list of plants known and used by the Kinabalu Park communities, Agnes pointed out. 

    "It is a model," she said. 

    "We are giving them a model on how to consult the communities, how to gather data, how to collate it, compile it and arrange it in a way that is acceptable and we hope the Kinabalu park will pick it up and fund the publication of more manuals, more educational materials, brochures, posters and pamphlets that can be returned to the communities and making sure that all data gathered do not just sit in computers but have direct use value for communities in addition to researchers," she said. 

    The book is reflective that People and Plants mean business in dealing with the issue. 

    How they did it is exemplary of dedication and motivation, a story of great collaboration between institutions, painstaking efforts to train community collectors, willingness to go out on back breaking field trips to isolated villages, patient consultations with them, organising workshops, tests, obtaining consensus from divergent communities on what to publish. translating the texts, standardising the data broken by vastly different dialects and names, ensuring professional illustrations of plant specimens etc. 

    "The community based manual is something we worked in collaboration with Sabah Parks," she said. 

    "It is a follow-up from the Park's Kinabalu Ethnobotanical Project which was initiated in 1992 in partnership with People and Plants," she said. 

    “This time, the Park welcomed us back to work in collaboration once again to get the results of the 1992 project back to the communities," Agnes explained. 

    "What the 1992 Project did was they had gone out over the last six years collecting data, trained community collectors on how to collect plants and to record ethnobotanical information especially traditional uses of plants known to the villages and write down all the details to it," she said. 

    "And over six years, you can't imagine how much information they got stockpiled from nine communities  - dense, rich information most of which sitting in a computer," she said. 

    "What we did was to collate all that information, compile it in the manual and return the knowledge back to the communities in a way that is accessible, useful and hopefully valuable for future generations," Agnes said. 

    In all, 2000 copies were printed and each couple from 15 communities were given a copy. 

    Most villagers in fact wanted 100 plants in the manual but time constraints precluded their wish and even with 40 plants, the book came to 100 pages, Agnes pointed out. 

    Since the choice of plants was decidedly democratic to ensure the book receive general acceptability, this meant Agnes and her assistants had to subject to some tedious consensus processes to see the project through. 

    "We actually started in February. To benefit as many people as possible, we involved 15 communities. We went in there, ran workshops and asked : which plants do you want to put into the book and they chose the plants. Then we made a short list. We went back to them again and said ok, here's the short list, what do you think? When they were satisfied with that, they went out to collect specimens, and gave me a list of uses, which we cross compared with each with those from 15 communities," she said. 

    "Since some plants found in one village may not be found in another, by putting them together. it stimulates exchange of knowledge." Agnes pointed out. 

    "It is tough producing it because 15 communities have differences in dialects, differences in uses. A plant can be called A one Community and the same plant can be called D in another. It is therefore difficult to standardise the data in a way that keeps everyone happy and does not corrupt data validity at the same time," she said. 

    Agnes doesn't speak Dusun, she confessed. 

    "It's probably a difficult thing but it's a small barrier," she said, since the manual is in Dusun primarily. 

    "I conduct everything in Bahasa Malaysia but the communities wanted the book in Dusun which meant it had to go through a translation process, verified in Bahasa Malaysia and translated back to Dusun again." 

    "Rita Lasimbang of the Kadazandusun Language Foundation does the translation, with also inputs and ideas from Park ecologist, Dr. Jamila Nais, then it goes back to the Park for standardisation and consistency treatment," Agnes said. 

    But probably the most extraordinary show of technical talent is Jusimin Duanch, 26, the local boy who does all the technical drawings in the manual Agnes said. 

    "Jusimin never had any formal training. When he started four years ago, he didn't know what a felt pen was. Now, he has got to a point where he cannot find a pencil which is fine enough because he has gone down to drawing fine details. When I look at his work, I just fall in love with it. He's got such fantastic talents. And he can draw four per day. Most of time he just sits in his office but the whole world doesn't know he's here. They should," she said. 

    "But it fits into the concept of this book that the manual should be community based. One should gather the data in constant consultation with the communities. A lot of work is done by the community, such as a community member who does the drawing, a member of the community who does the data gathering, a member of the community who does the translation." she pointed out. 

    "It's a small project but we got good follow-ups," she asserted. 

    "Based on the work that I have done here, I did some tests of local knowledge at Poring Hotsprings in May. I gathered 120 people from Kg. Kiau, Kg. Manggis and Melangkap who had participated in the preparation of the book, walked them through a trail with 30 different plants and asked them: do you recognise these plants? What are their names? Do they have use? Can you describe the use?” 

    "From there, you know who knows what. What do the old men know? What do the kids know? What do the teenagers know? What do the women know? 

    "The results were good. It showed those people living in forest dependent areas had higher and larger knowledge about forest plants. People living closer to urban areas knew more about commercially used plants. - nothing really fantastic but it did show a slight decrease in knowledge among the younger generation who had left their villages and had gone to boarding schools in Kota Kinabalu, Tuaran or Ranau where the use of plants became less frequent and their knowledge became less detailed as a result," she pointed out. 

    "But next year, we shall test them again to find out whether the book had achieved the objective of reinforcing knowledge and revitalising knowledge," Agnes said. 

    A major tenet of this project is that book isn't for sale to people outside those communities in deference to intellectual property rights. 

    We won't sell it. The purchase is something we want to keep in the control of the communities so that they have as much control as possible on who gets to use it and how to use it. They decide whether outsiders could access it, whether to put in schools or libraries, whether to store in community or share it. We are talking about the potential of bio-prospecting, intellectual property rights," Agnes said. 

    But beyond the manual, Agnes is hoping to use Kg. Manggis and Kg. Kiau to carry out two parallel agro forestry projects. 

    "Here too, we'll consult the communities what they want to plant - whether they like fruits trees, rattan or medicinal plants but after the workshops, I have a strong feeling they want fruit trees." 

    "We can support them by providing the infrastructure, technology, techniques and skills and over a long period, monitor the way these plantations are used, whether they use economic gains and whether it enriches the biodiversity of the local ecology." Agnes said. 

    As part of its capacity building effort, People and Plants Southeast Asia is funding her research project over three years where she studies indigenous knowledge and pattern of distribution. 

    Eventually, she hopes this would lead to a Masters degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Canterbury, she said. 

    Whatever that eventuality, this young dynamic damsel had already pioneered a very unusual project in Sabah dedicated to save traditional indigenous knowledge of plants which scientists believe is crucial in furthering the cause of biodiversity on earth. 

Copyright 1998, Daily Express, Sabah, Malaysia. All Rights Reserved.

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