“Sacred plants in Africa at risk of disappearing
By Kevin James Moore
|Many Africans depend on plants for traditional medicine and rituals
(Photo Credit: Flickr/Creative Commons)
The Fante-Akan people of Ghana have a traditional knowledge of ritual plants used to cure people of mental and physical ills, but these sacred plants are in danger of vanishing as their surrounding forests diminish.
“Certain important medicinal plants are no longer available,” Dr. Tinde van Andel, of the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis, told MediaGlobal. As an ethnobotanist, it is Van Andel’s job to study how cultures utilize indigenous plants and prevent such practices from being lost.
In June, van Andel will travel to Ghana to conduct fieldwork documenting the traditional knowledge the Fante-Akan people.
Van Andel warns of the many consequences that may occur if this traditional knowledge fails to be preserved: “If people do not know their useful plants anymore, or if the plants are gone, people will lose a major source of wild food, medicine, shelter, craft material, fodder, and cash income.”
Commercially valuable plants are being overharvested. As a result, the Fante-Akan people now have to walk farther in order find the medicine they need, affecting both their health and survival. Van Andel will specify priority species that are critical to the Fante-Akan people’s social wellbeing, cultural diversity, and history, which will help in the conservation of those plants.
Millions of Africans rely on traditional herbal medicine for their primary health care needs simply because they lack access to forms of Western medicine. The indigenous plants used by these cultures contain a myriad of natural chemicals, anti-biotic or anti-fungal properties, essential oils, and tannins, all of which are effective remedies.
Certain plants are also used in centuries-old traditions and rituals. The Ashanti people of Ghana use a specific tree bark to dye the clothing of someone who has died. “The colour of the dye depends on the age and social status of the deceased, each colour comes from a different type of bark,” Van Andel added. “Even Ghanaians that have migrated to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, go through great lengths to obtain this dye in Europe, so they can bury their relatives according to the tradition.”
The protection of Africa’s biodiversity is crucial to conserving the cultural heritage of people that depend on plants as part of their way of life. There are many plants that still need to be identified along with the roles they play in indigenous cultures.
“It is not only essential to preserve traditional knowledge about plants and forests, but also very important to train young scientists in the taxonomy of tropical plants,” Van Andel said. “Too few botanists or biologists are trained nowadays in collecting, identifying, and describing tropical plants.”
Identifying and protecting plants that are an important part of people’s traditions will take time, money, and cooperation between governments and academia. Van Andel acknowledged, “We cannot protect what we do not know.” A greater understanding of indigenous plants will have many benefits and prevent the unique knowledge that traditional cultures possess from disappearing.