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The people-plant link to survival 

Tuesday, August 11, 1998

By Jaswinder Kaur 

For centuries, people in many parts of the world have been relying on the forest for survival. 

It is the source of food, medicine and income in many communities. People who depend on the forest take it for granted that they can continue to walk into forest and collect or cut what they need when they are hungry or when they fall ill. 

The need to sustainably utilise forest resources, however, is becoming an important concern for the world. 

Some plant species are becoming scarce while some medicinal plants have been overharvested. 

Such a realisation has result in the initiation of programmes like "People and Plants" created in 1992 by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Unesco and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Britain. 

Recently, about 30 participants from various disciplines gathered in Kinabalu Park in Sabah for the third leg of "People and Plants in Southeast Asia - Certificate Training Course in Ethnobotany", a programme which forms part of the People and Plants initiative. 

According to the WWF, ethnobotany is the study of plants used by people for medicine, food, supplements, shelter, fuel, craft material and other products. 

Participant Jane Mogina from Papua New Guinea says there used to be a dependency on traditional medicine 20 to 30 years ago. 

"But with modernisation, men has begun to depend on modern medicine," she says. 

Mogina, who is doing her Ph.D on the transmission of traditional knowledge and resource use at the Australian National University, feels that scientists tend to forget about the language aspect. 

"Traditional names of plants within communities do carry meaning. There are about 700 oral languages in Papua New Guinea and together with West Irian we have about one-third of the world's languages. 

"However these languages are fast disappearing so we are also losing plant names," she says. 

Vietnamese On Tran Van, who is working with the Dao people in Bavi National Park, about 60km from Hanoi, Vietnam, says new ideas like stem cutting are being introduced to grow and conserve certain plants. 

Locals are co-operating, On says, because they realise that their plant resources are depleting. 

"Medicinal plants have for long been associated with the Dao people. They have no jobs or proper health care system but they are still alive and strong," says On, a lecturer with the Department of Botany at the Hanoi College of Pharmacy. 

"They have a good prescription for post-natal care. Womenfolk can go back to work three days after delivering, but more than 20 plants species are needed for that purpose," On says. 

Attjala Roongwong, a research assistant with the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, Thailand, says local communities will always need to utilise forests. 

"Currently there are no laws on managing forests. Our aim is to build the capacity of the people so that they can sustainably manage their forests," she says. 

The experience in India shows that there has been overharvesting such as in the wildlife sanctuary near Karnataka in South India. 

Siddappa Setty, a research associate with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment in Bangalore, India, says if local communities continue to overharvest the forest, they will lose all the trees. 

"According to preliminary surveys, 60 per cent of their income comes from the forests. They usually harvest fruits and honey." 

To sustain what the wildlife sanctuary has to offer, Setty says that currently a biodiversity conservation project is being carried out. 

"We are assessing the richness of species, carrying out household surveys and we are ensuring that locals can process and sell their harvest at a value-added price," he says. 

Forester Tamano Bugtong, who is with the Kalahan Educational Foundation in Quezon City, the Philippines, says locals in the Kalahan area in Northern Luzon have free access to harvest what they like but are at the same time taught to harvest sustainably. 

"In 1995, we started on a biodiversity conservation research project to focus on valuable fruits which we need in order to process food." 

The foundation processes its own food and this is for the benefit of locals, says Bugtong. 

Indonesian anthropologist Herry Yogaswara, who is with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, says some indigenous people in West Irian depend on plants like sweet potato for food, medicine and to feed pigs. 

"Sweet potatoes are multifunctional. However, the Government introduced padi in some parts but padi is only functional as food. 

"Rice has become a status symbol. They equate money with rice," says Yogaswara. 

What is it like in Malaysia? 

Sabah Foundation Forestry upstream division conservation officer Barnabas Gait says the Agriculture Department can assist by introducing high-yield fruits and trees like rubber, adding that such initiatives can help in generating income for locals, apart from slowing down overharvesting. 

"Recently we introduced ethnobotany to locals. We need to document plants especially non-timber forest products. 

"We are also documenting traditional knowledge on medicinal plants among the Orang Sungei community. An Orang Sungei elder told me that once, traditional medicine knowledge was a must for everyone in the community, but this tradition is fading," says Gait. 

And in neighbouring Sarawak, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak master's student Rambli Ahmad says that communities living near totally protected areas have a wide knowledge on using forest resources. 

"Now with an increase in population and change in lifestyle and religion, many have forgotten what nature can provide them with," says Rambli. 

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Ph.D candidate Jenne Lajuni says agroforestry is something that should be looked into. 

"Agroforestry refers to agriculture within forests. Such a concept is underdeveloped in Malaysia but is already in practice in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand," says Lajuni. 

Academics and locals are aware that forests hold great importance in daily life. Although some may be working hard to take care of such resources, more needs to be done to ensure that future generations who continue to live in remote areas can make use of the forests. 

And, man should not forget that the forest contains plants, many of which have not been discovered yet, which hold the cure for many diseases. If the forest is not managed well, all will be lost for future generations. 

Ethnobotany initiative rests with community 

The initiative to care for and conserve plants must come from the community, but the people need assistance, says People and Plants in Southeast Asia regional co-ordinator Gary Martin. 

"We can help and encourage them. For instance, we can get the Agriculture Department to help us by providing fruit trees. Then organisations like Sabah Parks can give medicinal plant seeds from their botanical garden to nearby villages," he says, citing communities around Kinabalu Park as an example. 

Interaction between Government agencies and communities is critical, he adds. 

"Such interaction must continue even if People and Plants is not around anymore," says Martin. 

He says interaction between people and plants in the field of ethnobotany began in the mid-1800s. 

"People from the United States and Europe studied tropical areas which formed part of their colonies. They were interested in tapping not just into new plants but also what people could do with these plants," he says. 

According to Martin, it is the mission of People and Plants to work on what is known as the triangle of crisis in ethnobotany. 

"In one corner of the triangle, we are losing indigenous knowledge. People move out of communities or stop using plants in the way that they used to. 

"Most knowledge is not written down but passed on orally. There is also a problem with losing languages. Now we have about 6,000 languages but by the middle of the next century, there might only be about 600 languages left," he says. 

The second crisis, says Martin, is the loss of biodiversity from overharvesting. "We do not know how many plants we are losing but about 12 to 20 per cent of plants are in danger." 

The third crisis is that the world is losing its linguists, botanists, environmentalists and anthropologists who record descriptive knowledge of plants, says Martin. 

İ Copyright 1998, The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad. All Rights Reserved.

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