Magazine article UNESCO Courier

People and Plants

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

People and Plants

Article excerpt

In India, between the Ganges and the foothills of the Himalayas, grows a shrub with pale pink flowers, smooth leaves and milky sap. In Hindi it is called chotachand. According to a local legend mongooses use to feed on the plant before fighting cobras, and its root is still administered as an antidote to snakebite. Its use gradually spread to the neighbouring provinces and then to the whole country. In Bihar province, for example, it has been used to treat insanity, epilepsy and insomnia. In the eighteenth century European botanists named the shrub Rauvolfia serpentina. It was studied and analysed, and today it is one of the most effective drugs used to treat high blood pressure.

An interdisciplinary science

Ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between plants and people, is a marriage of several disciplines - anthropology, botany, chemistry, ecology, linguistics and pharmacology. Its field ranges from the use made of plants by local populations to the environmental and cultural impact that the disappearance of a plant can have on its environment. This interdisciplinary science is mainly practised in developing countries and with indigenous populations because in that context the link between production and consumption is far more direct than it is in the industrialized world. An Amazonian Indian will go out and pick the leaf he needs to treat a burn, whereas in developed countries not many people know that the pretty foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) growing in the garden is the basis of the medicine they take for their heart condition.

Some of the reasons for today's growing interest in ethnobotany are psychological (a revival of interest in nature and "natural" products, a sense of urgency that has arisen because the knowledge and traditions of indigenous peoples are dying out), while others are more pragmatic (people in the poorest countries often cannot get hold of - and above all cannot afford - modern drugs).

The World Health Organization (WHO) is trying to restore respect for traditional medicine, and many other international organizations and non-governmental organizations have followed suit. In 1992 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), UNESCO and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK) launched a joint programme called "People and Plants" "to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable and equitable use of plant resources by providing support to ethnobotanists from developing countries".

As part of the programme, on-the-ground activities are organized in biosphere reserves, World Heritage sites and other protected areas. Their goal is to record useful plants and knowledge, solve the on-going dilemma between conservation and exploitation in protected zones, invent non-destructive ways of harvesting wild plants, and ensure that conservation and the sound exploitation of plant resources really do benefit local communities. Local people, park and reserve staff, researchers and university students are taking part in the programme, to which American ethnobotanist Gary J. Martin has written a clear and practical guide entitled Ethnobotany, A Methods Manual, which sums up what has been learned during the first four years.

Learning from shamans

An ethnobotanist working in the field must have received a rigorous scientific training. He or she also needs to be physically tough, adaptable and a good listener. In his book Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice. American ethnohotanist Mark J. Plotkin, who spent more than ten years in Amazonia, describes how he learned the local language, followed the shamans, collected samples, made a herbarium and noted the uses that were made of plants. He analysed medicines, the vegetal poison on the tips of arrows and the hallucinogenic substances used during initiation ceremonies.

He recorded the words of an old Amazonian shaman who said: "It is true the youngsters do not want to learn. One day the medicines that the missionaries send from the city will no longer arrive. …

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