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Established since 1963

Loving the Green that Feeds you 

16th. August, 1998. 


Dr. Gary Martin, Regional Co-ordinator of People and Plants Southeast Asia, was very blunt and had nothing to apologise for being so. 

He said: "Without plants on earth, we wouldn't be on earth." 

It's a hard reminder to people to remember everything they eat and breathe originate from plants. 

On the other hand, he pointed out: “The world is depending on just about 100 species of plants to survive now. That makes up 90 percent of the world's well being." 

The problem is cities now house probably the majority of the world's population who falsely assume they are less dependant on plants. 

So the big question is how to resolve a future crunch when ever burgeoning world population exert even greater pressure on an ever dwindling plant stock. 

"We know that in addition to the 100 species that the world depends on for its well being, there are probably another 1,000 species which are marketed locally and regionally in regional commerce, some of which are cultivated but a lot of them are coming straight out from the forest which means as demand goes up, these plants become scarcer and scarcer because we are harvesting them heavily," he said. 

"Products like medicinal plants, for example, are being harvested at levels beyond the trees and plants to produce," Dr. Martin said. 

"Those are the things which have been commercialised,” he said. 

"But when you start getting into the communities who live around the forests, you realise there are a lot of things which they never buy or sell."           - 

"They go out into the forest harvesting medicinal plants for home use and harvesting edible plants." 

Dr. Martin went on: “Even at Kg. Manggis which we visited, you find people are going into the forest to collect vegetables such as bananas, ginger, edible ferns plus many others.” 

"In the past, when people made a lot of craft objects like baskets, dye fabrics. So you have rattan, dye plants and timber all these things came from the forests also." 

Asked what are the critical issues in this question of people and plants, Dr. Martin said: "Whenever I am teaching or do a project like this, I think of plants in a pyramid. The top of that pyramid comprise the 100 plants I mentioned earlier on and they say that's the 100 resources out there and that make up most of how we live! It's a scary situation when you think that overtime, civilization started off using lots and lots of plants,” he pointed out. 

"Now, as a world civilization, we have decided that the way to evolve is by actually using very few resources -100 plants, mostly food plants. That's bad enough, not a good strategy." 

“We should have as many options open, instead of narrowing your options." 

"But even worse is that in that top of the pyramid, we are decreasing diversity," he said. 

"For example, during the Green Revolution, we bred certain varieties of rice and corn that were growing very well with things like chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. So, they did extremely well for certain years, for those who had the money to buy these chemical inputs," Martin said. 

"But what are the down side? Some years they didn't do so well. Even if they did, we all know what herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers do to the environment." 

"The alternative is to maintain local varieties. Over time, communities have bred hundreds and thousands of varieties of everything," he pointed out. 

"That's why you have different types of bananas, different types of rice. If you just go out to a Dusun or Murut community here, you see dozens and they all have their different characteristics and they all have better tasting than when you get Uncle..." 

“It's good rice." 

"But overtime, what we are doing is just narrowing down not just the number of species we use but the genetic diversity of those cultivated species.” 

"That's the top of the pyramid. A big critical issue there is instead of decreasing diversity, let's expand it by recovering local varieties and selecting the seeds, cultivating them in the communities, sharing that seed with other communities," he said. 

"That's why in this course (People and Plants in Southeast Asia Certificate Training Course in Applied Ethnobotany at Kinabalu Park) we have brought along a couple in Australia, Judy and Michel Fenton and they are part of this thing called The Seed Savers Network." 

"What they do is encourage people to do that - don't let go that tomato that grandma had been growing for the last 60 years. And it's the seed. We'll send that seed to any body who asks. And now those people are sending cut cantaloupe (small round ripped rock melon first grown 
grown near Rome in Europe) that grandpa had been growing in his backyard in Brisbane over the last 50 years. And instead of leaving with grandpa, its seeds are now all over Australia," he said. 

"And it's better than a hybrid type of melon or a cantaloupe you buy in the Store. Why lose all those things. Why throw away those big things which had been developed over time?" he asked. 

"As I go down the pyramid, the next layer is what we call the secondary pool of resources. This pool contains roughly about 1,000 species of the commercialised species on a local or regional level." "I have given a couple of examples, things like rattan, damal resin which was formerly important, and daharu resin which is still very important." 

"We certainly recognise the importance of those plants to the local economy. But the big challenge there is making sure that we don't put those plants out of business by over harvesting," Dr. Martin said. 

"Some of them are cultivated. In that case, we don't have a problem. Let's take an example of vanilla. Vanilla orchids were wild. In Mexico where they originated, they are still wild vanilla orchids being harvested," he said. 

"Now, if vanilla had not become a cultivated crop, we may be in big trouble in terms of wiping out that particular species," he illus-trated. 

Look at what we are collecting? Their fruits. If so, where are the new plants going to come from?" 

So, for each of these species in the secondary pool, you have to look at their biological characteristics, what are you harvesting. You have also to look at the social characteristic – the demand in the world market and you go species by species." 

“You take something like vanilla and you say, well, not a particular problem - it's been brought into cultivation. It's not one of those 100 most important plants." 

"But the market for, vanilla will stay. Communities' can grow it on a local scale. Actually, it almost needs to be grown in forest. So, that's when it gets a seal of approval from people interested in community development and conservation - to be grown by communities, to be marketed by communities. There are projects like this including Mexico." 

However, he pointed out: "There are certain dangers involved in any of these secondary pool resources . Having to deal with ups and downs in the market. Right now, Vanilla has become the thing. So, every body is running around telling communities to grow vanilla. But what happens when you do that on a world scale?" 

"The price drop. You have seen it with cocoa, palm oil, coffee." 

"That's one of the challenges too. Putting for things communities can do with these products that can support village level local economies but on a regular and continuous basis." 

"To point out a couple of issues here, that secondary pool is really important to local economy. It's really vulnerable to over harvesting if you don't pay attention to the basic biological and cultural characteristics of that plant." 

"And third, it is very vulnerable to the moodiness of the market - the ups and downs that you get." 

"So, whenever we grab get a species, we have to really analyse things very carefully and say, well, what's going on with this particular tree. Lets look at the gaharu tree. How do you harvest it? Just cut down the tree – very destructive harvesting. How many are there? One per hectre in places like the Kinabalu Park, not very much. What is the market? What is the demand? Enormous - thousands of dollars per kilo of high grade gaharu, part of it goes off to an Asian market, the other part goes off to an Middle Eastern market and that's why we get a lot of destructive, illegal harvesting. That's a classic example that one that doesn't win a seal of approval, definitely not a sustainable return, definitely not benefiting the communities," he said. 
"So, that's what we call going down the pyramid. The Primary pool consist of mainly food and some industrial materials. In the secondary pool, there is a big diversity of things - medicine, timber, wild fruits and in Borneo, there is certainly a very diverse range of products people are using." 

“In the Tertiary Pool, we estimate there are about 50,000 plants," said Dr. Martin. 

“These include a whole range of things you can imagine. But in general, those in the tertiary pool are harvested from the forest or in areas which are not strictly cultivated," he said. 

"But before manufactured products, everything came from them - clothing, construction materials, edible plants, medicinal plants etc." 

"If you visit the New Zealand Museum of Economic Plants and Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, you would be amazed what there is all over the world - clothes made out of marazi bark, resins for medicine, fruits used for food, an incredible range of things," Dr, Martin marvelled. 

" But even after a hundred years of documenting useful plants in ethnobotany, we still don't have a data base of all those useful plants around the world," he pointed out. 

"On top of that all, there is a Reserve Pool of 200,000 to 220,000 species that currently have no recorded use," Dr. Martin said. 

"It's incredible. These plants are important too for other reasons, such as watershed protection, for maintaining ecological, processes." 

They are important for ecotourism. All the plants in the Kinabalu Park people come to see them, not just the rafflesia or nepenthes which are very popular, but the general look of the forest provided by plants. That's the sort of Reserve Pool that eventually may be used as we look for new medicine and plants, in a field called bioprospection biologically for new products." 

"Those are all potential plants that could be useful." 

"In a nutshell, that the way of summing up the utility of plants to people," Dr Martin explained. 

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

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