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INDEPENDENT NATIONAL NEWSPAPER OF EAST MALAYSIA
Established since 1963 

Learning from plants

9th. August, 1998. 

By KAN YAW CHONG 

    The attraction of the UN supported programme named simply People and Plants is its simplicity and magnetic attraction which immediately fixes one's focus on the relationship between plants and man and the critical value of plants to man. 

    In these days of city-oriented living, an increasing number of people have little or no contact with a whopping estimated 270,000 species of plants botanists say exist on Earth. 

    Most species remain little known. 

    A driving concern is a lot of them are being destroyed before scientists have the chance of taking a proper inventory of world plant populations and developing an understanding of how this huge unknown sectment of plants species may have the potential to benefit mankind. 

    As a result, people's understanding and appreciation of plants as a whole, is generally poor  and indifferent. 

    Plants and the ecosystems that support them in all their infinite diversities, are generally taken for granted. 

    Yet, plants are the primary producers of both the oxygen and food that all organisms ultimately depend in order to live, in addition to being a fundamental source of clothing, shelter and fossil fuels that we know today. 

    Presently, the oxygen in the air without which people die within two three minutes, is actually surplus oxygen produced by plants early in the history of life on Earth. 

    Those who have studied biology would recall how life on Earth is intimately linked to the food chain. 
 
    Even when we eat meat or fish (surprising?), we are, in actual fact eating plants one or two steps up the food chain. 

    But no matter how many links there maybe, the food chain begins with plants which range from microscopic single celled blue green algae to giant trees like the Redwoods of California. 

    It has been pointed out that over 80pc of the world's medicine come from plants. 

    So, which is the real benefactor? 

    Do plants need man? 

    Not really, because they are their own food makers, through photosynthesis - what botanists call "autotrophic organisms" which make them the foundation of the food web on which man ultimately depend whereas people are heterotrophic which cannot manufacture their own food. 

    People get their food by eating plants and other animals. 

    Although man exhale carbondioxide which plants use, together with light energy and water to produce glucose, respiration from other animals also produce carbondioxide. 

    But do people need plants? 

    Absolutely. 

    "Man can't survive without plants," said Dr. Gary Martin, regional co-ordinator of a very interesting but little known programme called People and Plants in Southeast Asia. 

.  But man's treatment of plants, which is represented most dramatically by the richest expression of life on earth - the rainforests, certainly needs a lot of soul searching. 

    Luckily, plants are very resilient. 

    But a big concern in this age of rapid economic and cultural change is the loss of plant diversity, their genetic integrity and dwindling traditional knowledge about plants. 

    Hence the core objective of People and Plants in Southeast Asia is to enhance biodiversity conservation, community based management of plants resources and promotion of local, indigenous knowledge of plants in Southeast Asia. 

    The programme had existed for six years, which also operates in other parts of the world like South America, Nepal, Africa and the pacific. 

    Its founders involved three big international names - the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Education (Unesco) and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens which in 1992 created its larger parent programme called People and Plants Initiative. 

    But hardly anyone in Sabah knew about this programme until the beginning of June this year when the local and national press were called to cover the tail end of its eight-week Certificate Training Course in Applied Ethnobotany which was attended by more than 20 participants from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand   and Vietnam. 

    These participants included government officers, representatives of environmentally concerned commercial enterprises, NGO members, university researchers and students. 

    Most of these participants were interviewed some of whom had done very interesting projects on the subject in their home countries and their work and views will be published as part of Daily Express’s People And Plants Initiatives series. 

    But activities such as this training course focus on three themes that are closely linked to biodiversity conservation and improving people's standard of living. 

    Firstly, continuity in knowledge and subsistence systems based on a wide range of plant resources. 

    Secondly, sustainability of critical resources marketed on a regional and international level and thirdly, promotion of the use of non-cultivated plants in traditional agricultural systems, and maintenance of traditional crop varieties. 

    The purpose of the programme is capacity building in Southeast Asia for work on conservation and development related to management of plant resources at specific sites and according to priority issues identified during the project planning process. 

.  The recent training course which they call the CTC, most of which held at the Kinabalu Park, was a "capacity building" activity for a group of people who were working on issues of plant resource management, particularly related to protected areas. 

    The eight-week course was a broad introduction to theory, concepts and field methods in ethnobotany, as applied to conservation and development. 

    There were two-week sessions on qualitative methods which was held in September 1997 at Kinabalu Park. 

    Then the participants were taken to Subic Bay, Philippines, in February 1998, for another two-week session on quantitive ethnobotany which was preceded by a one-week short course on Geographical Information Systems. 

    Finally, another two-week session which focussed on returning research results and benefits to local communities. Preceded by a one week short course on ethnobiological and scientific classification and Southeast Asian plants and animals, was held at the Kinabalu Park once again between 16 June and 3 July. 

      Hence, Sabah's Kinabalu Park played host twice to this dynamic programme which embraces noble objectives to perpetuate plant diversity and indigenous plant knowledge. 

    Other aims of this course include developing training materials and approaches; selection of a few young professionals who will be sponsored for further training and research; raise awareness within institutions and protected area agencies of the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to applied ethnobotany. 

    For instance, the course included sessions and workshop on how to deal with the press and writing of press releases, to encourage them to create public awareness by publishing their work. 

    In this workshop, Sabah journalists present were able to contribute their ideas and experience on how press releases should be written. 

    In addition, a multi national participatory training course such as this creates a networking opportunity for applied ethnobotany practitioners. 

    Another purpose of People and Plants is to alleviate and resolve issues of biodiversity conservation and continuity of local knowledge at selected sites. 

    People and Plants in Southeast Asia is supported by funds provided by WWF-UK European Union, UK Department of International Development and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 


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

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