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Established since 1963 

What the Common People Know Best

30th. August, 1998.


AMONG the scientific circle, the People and Plants Initiative has demonstrated a rare deference to traditional knowledge among the common people. 

    Scientists and specialists had been barking about biodiversity at times as though it's their exclusive domain but history has shown that the common people in humble communities living close to nature indeed know more than they had been credited for.

    These unsung common folk are therefore crucial helpers in inventorying a largely uncharted world of plants and their uses, as one of the first main steps to further the cause of preserving biodiversity for the sake of mankind.

    For instance, a recently revised estimate of the biodiversity of Sabah's world famous 734 sq. km Kinabalu Park came like a bombshell announcement.

    It is now estimated the park has 6000 and not 4000 species of vascular plants as originally thought.

    "It's truly one of the areas of highest biodiversity in the world but I have to say that local collectors and communities living around the park are responsible for a lot of these new additions," pointed out Dr Gary Martin, Co-ordinator of People and Plants Southeast Asia.

    Tracing history, Dr Martin illustrated this classic example how traditional knowledge had decisively helped the cause of biodiversity in general and in this particular case, gave the Park a "top rank" status in the World Biodiversity Map.

    "This has turned out to be a very interesting story," remarked Dr Martin.

    "Professional botanists have been coming to this mountain for about 145 years. I think it was Sir Hugh Low who made the first plant collection in 1851. Over those 145 years, hundreds of botanists had come to collect plants. This is one of the better known areas of Southeast Asia which is very attractive to botanists."

    "But just to give an example of palms which is a very important family economically such as rattan, sago and a whole series of useful palms. You would think that over such a long time the botanists which include a few palm specialists who collected intensely, must have detected all the palms of Mt. Kinabalu by will and by chance."

    Reality proved otherwise.

"When I came here in 1992, the first goal of our project was to survey the palms around Mt. Kinabalu and learn about their ethnobotany, that is, how people use using them and how people are classifying them."

    "And I said, that was great, because Dr Jamili Nais had done the first check list which showed there were 10 genera of palms and 27 species. We (thought) knew what to do - easy." Dr Martin recalled thinking.

    'Then we got a group of community collectors together, telling them just collect those palms and information about them such as how they are being used."

    "You know how many palms there – l5 genera and 80 species!”

    "So, the botanists had missed 5 genera and 53 species over the course of 145 years!" Dr. Martin exposed the big miss.

    "Why is that?"

    There have been differences of interpretation but my interpretation is that local people know the flora. Local people use the flora. They know those little species tucked away in hidden corners of the community while botanists were visiting more frequently visited areas," he postulated.

    "So, with the help of local communities, we were able to increase our knowledge of the diversity of palms around Mt. Kinabalu by almost 60 to 70 per cent in the course of three years." Dr. Martin pointed out.

    "What is very important to emphasize there is while we don't know most of the estimated 270,000 species of plants in the world as they haven't had all their names, even scientific names, local people have a big role to play in finishing that inventory."

    "At the same time the inventory is very enriched because we know how those plants are used," he added.

    Tying in this new found biodiversity of Kinabalu Park, Dr Martin referred to recent surveys done of all the areas around the world that have high biodiversity.

    "In fact, there was a general survey of low to high diversity areas and from that they had just created a kind of map which shows zones of higher and higher diversity and it was like a worldwide competition to determine what's the area of highest biodiversity: Is it Papua New Guinea? Is it the Amazon? We call these places biodiversity hot spots, in the sense they embrace extremely high biodiversity and other environmental crisis like forest fires, deforestation and conversion to agriculture," He said.

    "The question is if we were to save 10 per cent of the world's natural heritage, what 10 per cent would we pick?" 

    "There was a recent study where somebody model this with computers and Mt. Kinabalu is top rank!"

    "It's truly one of the areas of highest biodiversity in the world. We are currently thinking of about 6000 species. (of vascular plants) and this estimate is based on figures which are an underestimate (4000 species) of the flora of Mt. Kinabalu." Dr Martin said.

    The man behind these estimates is well known Royal Botanical Garden, Kew, Professor John Beaman.

    "I studied botany back in Michigan State University about 20 years ago where I took a botany class from Prof. John Beaman and he got me started in ethnobotany.”

    "We went to Mexico, Guatamalka together on a university collecting trip and he was the one who brought me to Sabah originally because he was a visiting professor - a Fulbright Scholar at the then University Kebangsaan Malaysia Sabah branch and he started a project called the Flora of Mt. Kinabalu and put together all the information of all collections of plants from Mt. Kinabalu and the original estimate was about 4000 but now, it's 6000," Dr Martin emphasized.

    "As a field of study, Ethnobotany began in the in 1800's particularly when people from Europe and the US began to explore tropical areas in their colonies at that point of time, looking for new sources of economic plants, new sources of food, new sources of oil, new sources of industrial materials such as rubber and quinin as medicines.

    “These were big discoveries and this is a very important part of colonisation," Dr. Martin said.

    "They were not just interested in tapping into new plants they were finding but tapping into what the local people knew about these plants."

    Crediting traditional knowledge once more for some of the world biggest discoveries in medicine, he cited another classic example : “That's how we found things like quinin. It wasn't just a researcher going out there and say hey : let's try this tree for malaria. They were going into a community and say what are you using for fever and the community says: well, we are using this tree called quinin."

    "Then the scientists tested it and quinin became one of the main medicines for malaria."

    An issue that had emerged since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit is the question of intellectual property rights of traditional knowledge (To be dealt with in another article).

    "But the crisis we are facing in ethnobotany is another triangle (as opposed to the resource triangle)," said Dr Martin.

    "One corner of the triangle is the fact that we are losing indigenous knowledge,” he warned.

    "Social economic and cultural changes, such as schooling being done in such a way that people are moving out of community or stopped using plants the way they had. As people and cultural practices change the respect for traditional knowledge start to disappear”, he said.
    "Most of this knowledge is not written down like text books. They were traditions passed down from generation to generation."

    "Another crisis is the loss of language. We now have 6000 languages in the world and probably by mid 2000, we'll have only 600 and lose 90 per cent of languages spoken, particularly in critical areas like the Amazon where there are few speakers in each language. Less of a crisis is Kadazandusun. Murut where there are large number of speakers and efforts to get it into schools," he pointed out.

    "Another crisis is the loss of biodiversity in domesticated plants and genetic resources, loss of particular species through over-harvesting."

    "The whole triangle (resource) is eroding because of deforestation, endangered species and environmental problems and we don't know how many species we are losing. But a recent report came out by the World Conservation Monitoring at Cambridge estimates up to 12 to 20 per cent of the world's plants are in imminent danger," he said.

    Dr Martin cited a “capacity crisis" in preserving biodiversity with reference to a half Dutch half Indonesian botanist named Max Van Bougoi who demonstrated how he could identify 1000 local plants in four nights during their Certificate Training Course on Applied Ethnobotany at Kinabalu Park in June,

    We are losing the linguists the botanists, the anthropologists and the environmentalists who do field works, who do descriptive works, who could really help in documenting this knowledge and applying it," Dr Martin lamented.

    "You look around universities, are there botanists left? Yes, but they are all molecular geneticists, all working on one species of plants. There are no botanists under 50 years who can sit down like Max Van Bougoi and identify 1000 plants in four nights - no generalists left," he said.

    "If you look at the linguists, all are concerned with theoretical constructs which are all very good of course, I have nothing against biotechnology or linguistics at theoretical level. But what we really need are people who know descriptive linguistics, people who can go out and record languages, grammar and syntax, make dictionaries, work with the communities to hold on to the language" he said.

    "Similarly plant genetics is great since my brother is a professor of plant genetics at Cornell University. The problem is we have only plant geneticists who work on molecular levels.

    "Who could work with communities and survey 150 useful plants in a forest park? We are losing that capacity."

    "There are fewer ethnographer - people who go out, live with people working on lost languages, lost culture, lost biodiversity."

    Hence, said Dr Martin, an important mission of the UN backed People and Plants Southeast Asia is focus on what can be done in upholding Community knowledge, conservation and continued management of plant resources and as he put it : " How we can build capacity, skills and techniques by taking young dynamic Southeast Asians involved in the field of communities and look at tools - internet, community visit or whatever to get results."

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

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