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Established since 1963 

Dao Shall 'gel' with Plants

13th. September, 1998. 


FROM Vietnam comes a very interesting story about People and Plants. A minority indigenous tribe who know the forest best in that country are the 100,000 or so Dao people who migrated from China several hundred years ago.

    What fascinates young Vietnamese scientist like Tin Van On, a Masters in pharmacy and botany, is the amazing vigour and health of the Dao people in general.

    "When it comes to medicinal plants in Vietnam, it's the Dao people who have been living in and around forests for a long time," Tin said.

    "They had no hospitals, no health care system and that means they had to look after themselves but they are vibrant, very, very strong and healthy people,” observed Tin who had been working over the last six years among about 2,000 Dao people in connection with a project called Conservation of Medicinal Plants in Bavi National Park, about 60km from Hanoi.

    Citing an example, Tin said : "After having babies, Dao women can go back to the field and work very, very hard, after only three days!"

    Such a short break is a stark contrast to the lengthy and careful post natal confinement practice (stay inside closed room, shun washing hair or hands for weeks) observed by other women in other region, including Sabah.

    The Dao secret?

    "A very special and effective prescription in the form of a dense, glue-like gel composed of extracts brewed from a group of some 150 different medicinal plants but mainly about 20 core species," Tin pointed out.

    "What they do is they drain some of this extract and dip their body for about 30 minutes," he said

    But one can see the extraction process is tedious, complex and requires the use of an incredibly large variety of plants.

    "To make a very good prescription, they use over 150 species of plants. So each preparation needs 50kgs to one metric ton of materials!" pointed out Tin.

    A consequence is over harvesting of key medicinal plants.

    Said Tin: "Normally in Chinese medicines, they just boil plants with water and drink the brew. That's easy but in the Dao's case, they need to kick the water out until the extracts become a very dense glue-like gel," Tin pointed out.

    "In that way, there's a need to use a lot of medicinal plants from the Bavi Park. Every day, Dao people go to the Park and harvest medicinal plants illegally. That's a big problem but we cannot stop them because they need something to live and earn money and something for their children." Tin said.

    The solution to this problem is a matter of Tin's research for his PhD.

    "Planting these medicinal plants is a research project I have done over the last three years for my doctorate," said Tin, who was at Kinabalu Park in June to attend the People and Plants Southeast Asia's  Certificate Training Course in Applied Ethnobotany.

    "To do that, we should study very hard the ecological condition of each species. So we went into the forests and made a lot of tran-sectoral plots to research the ecological conditions of many species," he said.

    "So many people wanted to grow medicinal plants in their gardens but it had proved very difficult. Many plants died because many species need shade, many need high humidity as found in natural forests but people just pull out plants from the forest and transfer that into their garden which is very open and very dry and the plants die," he pointed out.

    "This means we must know their ecological condition and propagate them because many important species are already over harvested to the extent that we cannot find mature trees with flowers and seeds any more. All the big trees have been chopped down, leaving baby trees which are not old enough to flower," he said.

    "So, what we are trying now is to grow them by stem cutting. This is the fastest technique because you can get hundreds of them in one morning. This is a very new technique not only for that community but also for the whole of Vietnam," Tin said.

    "We have studied a lot of techniques from developed countries like United Kingdom and Australia where they have very good systems - computer controlled systems where humidity and other conditions are fed."

    "But of course, we cannot apply that system to the community, so we are trying to simplify them but keeping the rules on basics such as humidity," Tin elaborated on his project.

    Interest in his work is strong.

    "I think it is working. Because of the scarcity of medicinal plants nowadays, many community members and households want to grow medicinal plants in their home gardens but they are finding it very difficult. That's why we are trying to help them," he said. 

    According to Tin, the Dao people were traditionally shifting cultivators who would stay in one area for several years before moving on to new areas.

    "Nowadays, the forest cover in Vietnam is going down, our government is trying to settle them in one place," he said.

    But the old habit presents a big problem to the government policy and it's very difficult to train the people in new ways.

    Given the situation, information from Tin's research on ecological condition of medicinal plants helps: "We also keep the rights of the local people. We know the secret of their special prescription but we don't try to do anything to market it or jeopardise their intellectual property rights. If there are benefits, the benefits should return to the community. This is very important," Tin said.

    Besides Vietnam, the Dao people are  also  found  in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

    Tin, himself of ethnic Sang Chay whose ancestors originated from Kwangtong, China, first graduated from College of Pharmacy in North Vietnam.

    "So, my basic is pharmacy. But after graduating, I went to study plant botany. So, I have a Masters degree in botany," he said.

    "Pharmacy and botany is very strong in Vietnam because we have two systems - modern, western medicines and traditional medicines because the latter has a very big following."

    "Because of the close relationship between the two systems, we need to study botany which is a very difficult subject because you have to remember hundreds of family names - their characteristics such as alternate leaves, opposite leaves, flowers etc," Tin laughed.

    On the applied ethnobotany training course conducted under Dr. Gary Martin at Kinabalu Park, Tin said he had no regrets being part of it: "It's very good and very useful. By this course, I learn a very good way to gather data systematically and how to solve problems in each country. In fact, we are doing some parts of that in Vietnam," he said.

    But besides big projects on the conservation of medicinal plants, Vietnam also has programmes on conserving general useful plants, fruit and timber plants, he said.

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

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